Columns

2014.01.29 Into mouth or trash can?

on . Posted in By The Way

My wife is the person in charge of disposing of old food. I probably don't have a clear concept of what constitutes old food. If it's in the refrigerator, it's there to eat—unless there's some obvious coating of something from the world of the fungus. I recognize fuzz as something not meant for eating, but sometimes it's just a matter of trimming off the offending portion.

Many times she has stopped me in mid-bite to ask, "Are you eating that? That should be thrown away!" Many times I have accused her of trying to poison me. "If you knew it was no good, why did you leave it in the refrigerator?" Think of all the times she wasn't present to halt my spoon in mid-flight. 

And think of all the times I ignorantly ate "old" food and never got sick. If appearance fails to discern food gone bad, perhaps the only true test of reaching the throw-away stage is in the taste. If it tastes rotten, calmly but quickly walk over to the trash bag and eject it, then throughly rinse out your mouth and start over with something fresher.

That must be part of the thinking of Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joes. In May, he's opening a new restaurant in the Dorchester area of Boston, called The Daily Table. It's actually part grocery store, part café, and it's designed to attract the underserved population of the city with healthy but inexpensive food.

There is a catch: the store will only sell items that are past the "sell-by" date. It's taking what other stores are pitching and selling it cheaply—and making it into good meals in the café. 

A study last year concluded that about 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is thrown away. That's about $165 billion worth going into the landfill every year. One part of the problem comes from a failure to use excess food rather than throw it away. Another part of the waste is said to be consumers' confusion over the sell-by dates. If a carton of milk shows a date that's passed by, many people just pitch it rather than determine if it's really gone bad, or perhaps use it for baking. The dates on packaging don't mean pitch it the next day. Besides, something could go bad even before that date arrives.

Rauch wants people to stop using words such as "expired" food. A lot of food that's past the date, damaged or strange-looking (a crooked carrot, an apple with a spot) is perfectly good to eat.

Rauch knows he isn't the first to do what he's trying. Many high-end groceries cook their aging produce and sell it to customers in the hot-meal part of the store. People pay a lot of money for "expired" goods.

Rauch wants his restaurant's food to be as cheap as fast food, but without the obesity and heart disease attached. Rauch uses the label "garbage" not for the imperfect food that he will sell. That's for the packaged, mass produced fare found at the drive-through.

Colleen hasn't yet gone out for her birthday dinner. I suggested a trip to Boston and The Daily Table. She wasn't interested.

It's more likely that we'll travel to Ann Arbor. Colleen was so happy when Maddie chose to attend the University of Michigan. Finally, a good reason to visit the many fine restaurants of that city.

But I'm thinking of something different. I'm thinking about the organization called Meal Sharing: Connecting travelers with home-cooked meals. I recently read an article by Katherine Martinko that started off this way:

"The most memorable meals of my life have been shared with locals in foreign countries. From a leisurely six-course lunch beneath a mountain in Sardinia...to a plate of black beans and rice in the arid outback of Brazil, these food memories will stay with me forever."

Some people see Ann Arbor as a foreign place, and it's the closest location for Meal Sharing participants, if any of them will have us. 

Five people are listed; surely one of them is willing to prepare a special belated birthday meal for my wife. We'll scrape the mold off that piece of Jarlsberg cheese in the refrigerator and bring it as a gift from the distant land of Morenci.

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