Mysterious alchemical transformations are taking place every day in our refrigerators. Unseen to us.
After all, you are never around to see the exact moment when those three-week-old mashed potatoes at the back of the refrigerator start to blossom with mold.
There is a strange process whereby food is transformed into garbage. It may not be exactly the same for all of us: I have a friend who takes a kind of macho pride in buying and eating postdated food.
This issue is highly relevant today, of course, because of the enormous problem of food waste.
You have seen statistics like this: 30-40 percent of American produce ends up in landfills. Four-person households in this country throw out an average of $120 worth of food each month.
I don’t know how accurate these figures are, but they certainly point toward the real, underlying, and disturbing fact of food waste.
Tamar Adler, writing in the Washington Post, offers a useful perspective on these matters: “Americans need to collectively replace a preoccupation with ‘food waste’—which does not sound edible, never mind delicious—with a passion for food use. We need to change our approach from a moralistic one to a practical human one that treats edible ingredients as what they are: food.”
Adler points out that some of our favorite dishes rely on ingredients that are past their prime: “Refried beans exist because someone long ago trusted herself to smash and reheat leftover cold beans in fat. Fried rice—like sinangag and chao fan and hundreds of other dishes—is a familiar pleasure because cold, hard rice wasn’t discarded when it finished being hot, fresh rice, but instead was met where it was.”
No doubt way back when, in the Caucasus of 8000 BC, wine started out as postdated grape juice.
Sometimes it’s merely a matter of the raw versus the cooked. You wouldn’t put those old carrots on your crudités tray, but they’re perfectly fine when roasted alongside a chicken.
Other times, a soup will solve the problem. A quart or two of chicken broth and a couple of hours can turn the sad-looking items in your refrigerator bin into a wholesome dish. I even had a college professor who made lettuce soup, although his precise motivations weren’t clear to me.
Now we stray into an overlooked area of food waste: the cost of time. Many people—and the poorer they are, the more likely this is to be true—are rushing from job to job to child care and do not have two or three hours to chop old vegetables and wait for the soup to simmer on the stove. Fast food is often easier and may even seem cheaper.
This leads us to the perverse conclusion that saving on food waste is a luxury of the affluent.
Even so, Adler is right, I believe: you don’t need to jump to the conclusion that fruits or vegetables need to be thrown away at the first sign of brown spot or wilting.
If you’re hungry enough, in fact, you will scrape the mold off the three-week-old mashed potatoes and eat them without another thought. Or more likely, you wouldn’t have let them get to that point to begin with.