As I write this, the first of the season’s Gravensteins are thunking into my backyard, gnarled and weather beaten and bruised from their tumbles. In nearly 10 years of living beside this ancient tree, I—who crank out apple pies through Thanksgiving—have never tasted its fruit.
I could blame this on my suburban upbringing, which taught me that apples spring unblemished from waxy stacks in spotlit grocery stores. I could blame it on fine restaurants, where beautiful is visual shorthand for delectable.
Or I could, you know, bite into one of these fugly apples to see what knowledge it brings.
I’m already aware that the food waste crisis rages in this country, with some 40 percent of our food going uneaten. That, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, equals more than 20 pounds of food per person, per month.
Globally we waste enough food to feed the world’s 800 million hungry—twice over. In developing countries, most of that waste stems from insufficient infrastructure. In our country, most of it happens when grocery stores toss the perfectly good food they don’t sell. Or when ordinary folks like me don’t eat what they already have.
I open my fridge and see the problem. A head of liquefying butter lettuce. A Tupperware of week-old bolognese. Black basil in the crisper. Mind you, I was raised in the glory days of rotting food, the wild west before freeze-by dates and shallow refrigerators, by parents whose Depression-era frugality was exceeded only by their iron stomachs. “Just smell it!” Mom would sing, as one of her children would unwrap some mystery. The depths of our refrigerator was a no-man’s land of colorless spheres in vintage jars—olives? eyeballs?—and tubs of sour cream swathed in moonscapes of mold.
Parental neglect? I prefer to think of it as restaurant critic training. But, as it turned out, Mom was ahead of her time. No, not all old food is edible. Yet in this age where freegans can thrive on what they pluck from Dumpsters and sell-by dates have been outed as marketing strategies, not safety restrictions—using one’s senses, including the common variety, can be a fine way to determine edibility (among foods that have not been mishandled in preparation or storage).
And so my common sense tells me to stop composting the outer leaves of romaine, as I reflexively do because they’re weathered and less crisp. But the aesthetic aversion is strong. It’s one thing to support gleaning, the growing movement of harvesting leftover farm crops rejected for cosmetic or size imperfection, which around here has been practiced for 34 years by the nonprofit Rotary First Harvest. Rotary obtains the produce farmers judge unworthy, then delivers it to food banks to feed the hungry.
That’s charity. Similarly heartwarming is the ecological prudence Microsoft shows by stocking its Redmond campus cafe kitchens with imperfect produce from some 30 nearby farms. Last harvest season, Microsoft’s Misfit Produce Rescue program began sourcing oddball fruits and vegetables—undersize beets, bulbous Yukon Golds, scarred butternut squashes, forked carrots—through local middleman Charlie’s Produce. Why not, when it all gets chopped up anyway?
That’s a win-win stir-fry of good stewardship and good PR and (yes, it’s cheaper) good business. The trick, however, remains encouraging home cooks, most of whom are still women, to overcome what must surely be an adaptive urge to feed the family what looks healthiest. Marketing research shows that women have the toughest time getting past the attractiveness barrier. There are glimmers: A Bay Area start-up has begun a CSA subscription service for boxes of misshapen produce from small farmers. That same start-up now supplies several Northern California outposts of Whole Foods, which this spring became the first American supermarket chain to pilot an imperfect produce section.
But to convince the aesthetes, professional chefs may need to take up the bullhorn. Because, ironically, the chefs who raise the bar for just how beautiful a plate of food can be know better than anyone what a hot mess it begins as. One of these chefs, Jack Chen from the critically lauded Royal Dinette in Vancouver, BC, stages regular Ugly Duckling dinners for which he whips apple cores and herb stems and fruit peels into gorgeous five-course feasts. He’ll grill and chop kale stems and kohlrabi leaves to add bulk and smoke to pastas, make Danish bread porridge for dessert out of bread trimmings, then top it with a crumble of dried apple peel and toasted coffee grounds.
Of course Chen’s just raising the profile of something great chefs have always done. Farm-to-table cooks are some of the savviest resource stewards in the world—partly because they have the skill to coax goodness out of every last crumb, partly because they’re financially motivated to avoid waste.
If chefs can do that, surely I can offer my own backyard the chance to nourish me. And so I pluck an apple off the soft grass, wash it clean, knife off a slice between wormholes.