I am very serious about food. I don't know if it has to do with growing up cash poor or that cliche guilt trip parents lay on picky eaters: "There are starving kids in Somalia who would love that mushy brown banana!" But I have always gone to great lengths to neither take for granted nor waste whatever's on my plate or in my refrigerator. And I'm not talking "cutting off the mold" on old bread. Who doesn't do that?
Not too long after grad school, I was taken in off the streets by my equally poor and over-educated best friend. I was starving one morning and decided to raid her empty fridge for something -- anything -- to eat. There were month-old eggs, some slimy stalks of asparagus and a few raisin-like grape tomatoes and butter with white stuff on top.
Are y'all thinking what I was thinking? Frittatas!
"Dude, you cannot eat that shit," warned my friend -- who as it so happens was getting a master's in public health and has always been my default "medical professional."
"Why not?" I said, sniffing the eggs for the second time. "This is good!"
Needless to say, I ate like a queen that night while my friend decided to spend a precious tenner on take-out. And my tummy (and my bank account) thanked me.
There are a million stories like this of course. I imagine it's how most of us got through lean childhoods, college and that crazy in between time called "Rent? Uh-oh!"
But the thing is, I will never outgrow my love for unloved food. Mushy brown banana? Let me make you into a nice "pudding." And did I mention that I sort of hate bananas? Also, moldy cheese? Isn't that part of the whole process? Stinky milk? Just a minor set back. My trick is to pour "allegedly" bad milk into another container. If it still smells like crippling depression throw it out. If not, well then pass the Cookie Crisps.
Obviously I am not a doctor and I draw the line at rancid meats because I'm not ready to die for my cause. I'm just a firm believer that "sell by" and "use by" are more polite suggestions than anything. And some smart people at Harvard agree with me.
In a new report, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that, "The waste of edible food by consumers, retailers, and manufacturers poses a significant burden to the American food system," and that, "Misinterpretation of the date labels on foods is a key factor leading to this waste." Apparently Americans throw out something like 160 billion pounds of food each year -- and that's a conservative estimate.
There's this passage in a novel I love called "Silver Sparrow." In it, one of the main characters, a young girl named Dana, opens her fridge in a moment I recognized immediately.
"My mother had just been to the store, and I was proud of the full produce drawers, the two dozen eggs safe in their holders, and the glass bottles of juice."
God, if I don't know what that feeling was like as an only child of a single mom. Grocery day was like Christmas morning. So many packages to open! So many possibilities!
Now as an adult I take the same pride in not only being able to fill my own fridge, but to empty it out with equal care. Because not only are there "starving kids in Somalia," but there's a skinny kid who looks like me in the back of my mind whispering, "Wait, wait. All this could be gone tomorrow."