There has been some excellent media coverage of the food waste issues facing cultures privileged with overabundance. Last year, National Geographic did an amazing and typically in-depth job of covering food waste (and beyond), highlighting the stories of farmers who were simply leaving tons of produce in the field, since minor imperfections would make it impossible to sell to retail outlets.
But that loss seems almost innocuous when compared with another aspect of food waste, one that John Oliver, in his typical in-depth fashion, recently covered on Last Week Tonight. He dug in to the amount of food that grocery stores simply throw away rather than donate to shelters or others in need, simply because they believe they will be liable in the very unlikely occurrence that someone got sick from the food. Nevermind that no one has ever been sued for this, nor that there are actually laws on the books in many places preventing this type of lawsuit!
Since I started fermenting, I’ve had my own realizations about the type of food waste that was happening at my house. (PS-I wasn’t a totally wasteful maniac before I started fermenting and, conversely, I’m I haven’t become perfectly mindful of every ounce of produce that crosses my fridge threshold since). Fermenting my food, and overcoming the initial fear I felt about eating my home-fermented foods, made me very conscious of my own ability to discern whether or not food was spoiled. I came to realize that I was endowed with the tools for this. My eyes and nose probably evolved as they are, at least in part, to tell me what was safe to eat. It is only in the age of industrialized food that deciding for yourself what is safe to eat has become risky.
I no longer look at “best by” or expiration dates. I definitely used to be the person who looked at the August 8th “Best By” date on my milk on August 9th, smelled it (it smelled fine) and then promptly poured it down the sink, fearing that hidden pathogens might send me on a downward spiral into never-ending illness. Why? Why did I do this? I’ve smelled bad milk before, and frankly, IT TELLS YOU. It evokes disgust (a word which, at its root, literally means “distaste.”) Understanding the process of fermentation has empowered me to better understand when things have gone bad, and it has inspired me to think a little critically about why best by dates are on packaging in the first place (if you’re a manufacturer, perchance you want people to err on the side of buying again sooner rather than later?).
Besides making me an empowered and critical thinker when it comes to tossing or keeping the contents of my fridge, fermentation has made me actually better at keeping stuff around for longer. Lots of food fermentation is about preservation: from kraut to wine to miso, many fermented foods probably began solely as ways to keep food edible through the fallow season. My biggest food waste problem was always letting produce go bad in the back of the crisper. This made me feel incredibly guilty (especially once I started gardening and saw first hand how much work goes into growing even a single carrot!), so I was very glad to discover a few years back that the vegetables used in vegetable ferments do not need to be prime, glistening specimens, newly plucked from the field. Moldy or slimy vegetables don’t do great in ferments, unfortunately, but the weird, shrunken wrinkly bits of root veg? They can be brought back to superstar status with a simple chop-salt-pack ritual.
I’ve found other little tricks, too: that little bit of juice or wine left in the container gets new life as vinegar, fruit seconds from my local farms make excellent wines and sodas and things like cabbage cores and broccoli stems, that might otherwise be reincarnated only as compost, are made into tangy treats instead.
Again, I am not perfect. And I’m not confusing the small steps that I make at home with the fix for an international problem. But I like the feeling that I’m in charge of my food, and my food waste, though, and that comes from my deep and abiding love of fermentation.
Have any of your food waste habits or practices changed since you began fermenting? Please share in the comments!