You’d think I’d have some vivid, early memory of a food tradition rooted in preventing waste… I don’t.
The truth is I never thought much about wasted food until I was deep into my career as a chef.
Traditions of culinary thrift have thrived for centuries. I was acquainted with these cuisines, but I didn’t really know what I was looking at. It took more than a decade of cooking with food sourced directly from farms and then launching the WastED pop-up while at Blue Hill Restaurant for me to really see them. And now, at The Spare Food Co., finding culinary answers to questions of food waste is what we wear on our sleeves (and put in our cans and soon, on our plates.)
On the timeline of human history, food waste (certainly in this country) stands out as a major and modern problem. It emerged, in part, out of a post-World War II landscape of cheap food, cheap fertilizers and cheap refrigeration. Those technologies made food newly abundant while distancing us from our food sources. We went from being food-source-conscious to food-source-unconscious, and food became more easily disregarded and disposable.
In many modern cuisines we’re presented with perfectly manicured dishes that require a good amount of each ingredient getting pushed to the edge of the cutting board and from there, too often, into the trash. Enter the Japanese tradition of Zensai. I learned from Nancy Singleton Hachisu in her JAPAN: The Cookbook that, “Zensai dishes are small bites served before a meal and are typically created from the bits and pieces left over from preparing the meal.” This is brilliant. Zensai takes those scraps relegated to the margins of our cutting boards and gives them a starring role at the center of our plate.
I’m looking more and more at that rich edge of the cutting board... it’s where the fun is. When we’re forced to rethink our assumptions about the way ingredients are “supposed” to be used, we enter a new creative realm. That’s where the ingenuity of our culinary ancestors shone.
I've always loved history, so much so that I majored in History as an undergrad. But I didn't know much about food history. A few years later, after I graduated from the French Culinary Institute, my good friend Rich and I went off to eat our way around France (and Italy and Spain). We ate coq au vin in Burgundy and cassoulet on the outskirts of Toulouse — traditional dishes created to make maximum use of ingredients. This was a tangible connection to a culinary past grounded in place and preventing waste. I see now, twenty-five years later, that this experience is part of what’s led to the creation of The Spare Food Co.
Reflecting on that trip, especially Italy, I have to mention panzanella — a salad made of overripe tomatoes and stale bread. I love this dish. Anyone who knows me knows that it’s a favorite of mine and I talk about it (and prepare it) a lot, because in its simplicity it is such a powerful example. With the best of intentions, bread sometimes goes stale. Panzanella not only solves for excess, it’s delicious. There’s nothing sacrificed — certainly not flavor — by using an ingredient someone else might unconsciously throw out. It’s utilitarian, yes, but it's also just damn good food.
To address food waste, we need to recognize the historic cuisines that prevented waste. Learning from them, we can forge new food traditions that reduce food waste which we now know would help reverse the effects of climate change. Then we need to get to the point where we don’t have to think about it. Where it becomes ingrained. Where if you eat yogurt, you drink whey. Where we eat bread fresh out of the oven, or stale as panzanella.
I've always said that Spare Food is not a revolutionary idea. The spark behind The Spare Food Co. reaches way back into our collective food cultures. We want to take the best of that historic knowledge with us on the journey to a post-food waste world. The future is part homage, part blank slate, but always imbued with hope and, of course, the delicious possibility at the edge of the cutting board.
Here is just a taste of traditional dishes from around the world born out of culinary creativity and a cultural charge to waste not. (Truly, we could compile an encyclopedia of these kinds of foods… and those would just be the ones that have names.) Some may be familiar, some may not, and all are, at their core, good food. Go explore. Get inspired. And if you have a favorite waste-preventing dish, tell us about it, here.
Boerewors (South Africa)
Cholent (Eastern Europe)
Coq A Vin (France)
Gallina Guisada (Dominican Republic)
Ropa Vieja (Cuba)