Where waste took me…
If there’s one industry that cannot help but produce waste, it’s food service.
I’ve spent many hours of my life in the restaurant business. Usually as a manager bartender, or host, but I’ve also done my time on the line and as a prep cook.
I also used to eat in diners in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey.
The kind of places that served pancake stacks, Brandy Alexander, and surf & turf 24-hours a day. I tried to imagine their walk-in refrigerators and freezers.
How could they offer lobster tail and waffles at the same time?
There must be a surplus of ingredients to cover all of the options, but what do they do with food that doesn’t sell before the expiration date? Throw it away?
Which brings me to the New York blackout of 2003.
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For anyone who lived in lower Manhattan in 2001…
We were still on alert in 2003.
I was a manager of a restaurant called RICE. We had two locations: Soho (South of Houston St.) and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
Soho was my beat, but for some reason I was covering the Brooklyn location on August 14 when the power went out at 4:10 p.m.
It took at least a half-hour for it to register it wasn’t a local surge in electricity. As people began leaving their businesses and homes, we could sense something bigger was happening.
Cell phones weren’t working. Subways & traffic lights stopped.
And an eery feeling began to course through us nearly 2 years to the day after 9/11. My boss asked me to get back to Soho RICE to help them clear out all of the food and make sure the place was secure before locking up.
I had five hours to complete the mission & get home before dark.
A group of us began the 2-mile trek from DUMBO to Soho. We joined an orderly mass of people walking over the Manhattan Bridge, helping passengers climb out of a train stuck mid-way between stations.
The mood was low-key and focused.
It felt like everyone wanted to get home with the least amount of resistance or conflict.
I finally reached Mott Street to find our kitchen crew in formation to distribute food. Nine different rices had been cooked for the Thursday dinner rush that wasn’t going to happen.
The cooks had filled take-out containers so we could give it away rather than throw it away.
As the sun was setting, I stood in the doorway offering our delicious rices to anyone who would take them. And because we were known for these dishes, the neighborhood was grateful.
Except for one person who forgot about scarcity in the big city.
We still didn’t know if there had been a terrorist attack on the power grid. We still didn’t know this was the worst power blackout in history caused by a fallen tree branch. All we knew was it was going to get dark and food was going to rot.
“Do you have any of that red rice?” she asked.
“I’m gluten intolerant.”
As we were hustling to give out boxes of RICE! before the city turned full night, a young woman casually shared her dietary restrictions. She wasn’t sure if she should take the boxes or not, maybe we could open a few and look inside.
I have a raging Tarantino monologue capability.
I can summon Samuel L Jackson right before he’s about to pop you, but I save it for special occasions. This was not that moment… oh, but I wanted to!
Instead I asked the obvious in a situation where food was about to be diminished.
“Do you have some friends or neighbors?
Maybe… you could give them the food you don’t eat.”
PHOTOS OF THE AUGUST 14, 2003 BLACKOUT IN NEW YORK CITY.
YOUR TURN: Go to town on WASTE. Tangible, philosophical, personal… I’ve always loved the opening of Sex, Lies and Videotape (00:45) where Andie McDowell talks about garbage to her therapist.
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I've been thinking about food waste, and now here's Tamara's Monday newsletter to really gin up my thinking. I was raised to clean my plate. No regard for whether I was already full, no regard for whether I liked the dish--I had to clean my plate. When I was about 14, my mother made a dessert of pound cake and chocolate sauce. I loved chocolate so I poured a hefty slug of sauce on top of the cake. It was beautiful, the rich, dark color soaking into the yellowish cake. I took a big forkful. And gagged. The chocolate in the sauce was from Droste's, very dark and very bitter. I was used to Hershey bars, so this didn't say "chocolate" to me at all. I could not, for the life of me, force it down. The meal over, the rest of my family--three other children and my parents--left the table. I wasn't allowed to. I hadn't cleaned my plate. I don't know how long I sat there staring at my plate and wondering how I'd ever finish. Gathering my resolve, I took a forkful, held my breath, chewed, and swallowed. And promptly vomited. That sauce tasted so bad to me that I threw up after the second mouthful of it. I tried to clean up, but left some vomit behind on the table, for which Mom chastised me the next day. Today, my relationship with food is a hot mess of a battle between not wanting to waste food and learning to listen to my body. But one thing is very clear, and food waste concerns be damned: I will NOT--not now, not ever, NEVER again--eat Droste's chocolate.
I run down the hall at school, late for the class I'm teaching, no time for anything except hellos and hand-waves in passing. Like the White Rabbit, I mutter, "I'm late, I'm late! For a very important date!" I'd like to think this was an isolated event, but unfortunately that was my normal. The number one word in our household during those work-kids years was "hurry." Why? I was raised in New England and inculcated with the horror of material waste. Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. The horror of waste also included time. Add that to the Puritan work ethic and a high value on productivity, and who have you got? Someone who doesn't waste time on pleasantries. But after my children left home and my husband and I retired to the mountains, I wondered if any of my racing around had mattered. Had I wasted my life? Or was I using a flawed measuring stick? A slower pace can be amazingly productive. Waiting, thinking, listening patiently for someone to tell you their joys and sorrows, abiding in silence. I discovered what the world might see as waste can be a wonder.