A Look at Food Safety Through the Prism of a Dumpster Diver (Hint, He's Not Afraid of Too Much)
Given the intensity of political discussion of late, I think it's time for a change of pace. We get that change from northern Vermont author-farmer Ben Hewitt in an excerpt from his new book, "Making Supper Safe".
Reading through it, I was reminded of one of my favorite scenes from "Seinfeld",the long-running sit-com of the 1990s. It's the scene where George Costanzas is caught, by the mother of his girlfriend, no less, reaching for a beautiful chocolate eclair in the trash--its only blemish being a single bite that was taken before it was discarded. Haven't we all confronted George's dilemma at one time or another?
Hewitt here profiles a man who regularly goes after the eclair, among many other foods. I'll let Hewitt explain.
One of my motivating factors for writing my latest book, Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety, was the opportunity to explore my own assumptions about what constitutes “safe” food. As such, I was immensely intrigued to learn that someone I knew sourced at least one-third of his calories from dumpsters, and had been doing so for over 10 years. This, with only one case of acute illness he attributes to dumpster’d food (actually, now that I know the incubation periods of most foodborne illnesses, I’m not so certain even that single incident can be blamed on his diet).
By the end of the dumpster diving adventure that follows, I had begun to understand that not everyone views the issue of food safety in the same light. For instance, my friend wouldn’t be caught dead eating at a fast food joint, but he’ll happily consume locally produced cheese that someone else has deemed trash.
Edward leaned forward, peering through the windshield. It was night and a searing cold had settled over the landscape, riding on a driven wind that had swept snow across the roads, where it had turned to ice and upended numerous cars along Vermont’s Interstate 89. Everything looked lunar and foreboding. Already, barely 20 minutes into our drive, we had passed a Toyota truck lying on its side, illuminated by the flashing lights of emergency rescue vehicles. A few miles later, we passed an overturned sedan, its crumpled nose pressed against the ice-rimed surface of a rock face.
I followed Edward’s gaze. Ahead of us, illuminated by the wash of our headlights, a deer lay at the base of a guardrail. Edward turned to me, and although I did not know him well, I knew him well enough that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking: Food.
The car shimmied on the ice as we came to a stop at the highway’s edge. We stepped into the glacial air, our breath pluming into the dark. A row of cars passed, tires buzzing on the icy tarmac. I bent over the deer and tucked an ungloved hand into the fold of fur where leg met body. Still warm. This was a fresh kill, a coveted prize. We grabbed legs, Edward at the front and me at the rear, and hoisted the deer into the back of my car where it lay atop a pair of jumper cables and a rusty tire iron. “What a blessing,” Edward said as we slipped back into the car and its welcome cocoon of warmth. I slid the shifter into gear and we pulled onto the highway.
We had our meat. It was time to find some cheese.
I suppose it’s simplest to say that Edward Gunny is a dumpster diver, although it’s probably not fair to define a man according solely to his predilection for digging through trash in search of his supper. Still, it’s worth noting that Gunny, a lean-framed 28-year old, sources at least one third of his calories from the garbage, and has been doing so for nearly a decade.
Why, just two weeks prior to our outing, he’d snagged more than 50-pounds of imported brie from a dumpster in Burlington, Vermont. For the Christmas holiday, Edward had hauled a few pounds of the stash to his family’s home in southern New Hampshire, which he then proceeded to bake in his mother’s oven and serve to the assembled guests. “Where did you get this brie? It’s delicious,” asked his aunt, as she slid another spoonful of gooey-warm cheese between her lips. Not wanting to diminish her obvious pleasure, and yet not able to bring himself to tell an outright lie (this is the sort of fellow he is), Edward took the middle path: “Oh, it’s from a store I go to all the time.”
At this point it seemed entirely reasonable to bring up the issue of illness, which I’d previously skirted mostly because I didn’t want Edward to think I was a ninny. But now the guy was talking about feeding dumpster’d cheese to his blood relations, and over the holidays, no less. It was definitely time to go there.
Turns out, Edward has gotten sick from dumpster food. Once. In ten years of committed diving. He has not forgotten the details because the details are not forgettable. “I was out late, partying a little bit, and we were just walking around town, having fun. And I dipped into the trash and there was a half-gallon jug of Fresh Samantha Mango Montage. It was all sealed up and everything. And suddenly, I was so, so thirsty. I hadn’t known I was so thirsty. I hadn’t known it was possible to be so thirsty.” It sounded to me as if Edward were rather drunk, but I kept my mouth shut.
In any event, drunk or not, Edward did exactly what you’d expect a parched dumpster diver to do upon finding a half-gallon jug of juice in the garbage: He cracked the cap and put back a solid, uninterrupted quart of Mango Montage. Glug, glug, glug. I’ll spare you the rest of the particulars, as I wish Edward had spared me, and simply say this: It didn’t stay put back for long.
The Fresh Samantha incident stuck with me throughout the night, as Edward and I traveled a circuit of his favorite trash receptacles. At Ye Olde Cheese Worx (business names have been changed to protect future accessibility), we clambered into a dumpster where, amidst typical office detritus, we happened upon a few dozen pounds of artisanal cheddar and numerous packages of sweet butter. A few doors down, at The Center for Aged Fruits and Vegetables, we didn’t even have to wallow in the garbage: Next to the dumpster, so close its side actually touched the cold, brown metal, sat a pallet of organic strawberries. Did they practically throw themselves into the back of my car? They did indeed, as did a stash Italian Vinaigrette, hundreds of servings in convenient single-serving packets. “I love condiments,” Edward told me unnecessarily, after wedging four boxes of salad dressing between the deer and the dairy.
By midnight, the shocks in the back of my Subaru had become compressed and useless under the load; with every pothole, an alarming thump resonated from under the car. With the deer and the cheese and the butter and the dressing (the strawberries weighed hardly anything), our haul had to be pushing 300-pounds. The sky had cleared, and the temperature had plummeted even further. It was well below zero, and I felt suddenly exhausted and vulnerable. Clearly, it was time to go home.
But first, I needed a snack. Being the snacking sort, I’d anticipated this moment, and had cleverly perched a chunk of cheese atop the defroster vent, so that at least its edges might soften a bit. I reached for it now, and tore into the plastic wrapping with my teeth, inhaling the aroma of aged cheddar. It smelled just fine, which is to say, it smelled funky, but no funkier than the cheese I regularly purchased for upwards of $12 per pound at the local health food store. In the glow of the dash, I searched for visible mold. I couldn’t see any, but I wondered if perhaps I should wait until I get home, where I could examine the cheese under the glare of an 80-watt bulb. But I was suddenly ravenous, amazingly, profoundly hungry. I hadn’t known it was even possible to be so hungry.
“What do you think?” I asked Edward. “Is it safe?” I held the cheese in my right hand and steered the car with my left. The skeletal outlines of leafless trees rushed by my window.
Edward laughed, and frankly I couldn’t be sure if he was laughing at my question because he assumed it was sincere (it was), or because he assumed it was joke, or if he was simply finding mirth in the delightful absurdity of the whole scene: Two men careening through a late winter’s night, their car laden with enough artisanal food to feed them for a month. We had hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of food in our possession, and it had cost us nothing more than a gallon or two of gas, a few hours missed sleep, and the ability to feel things with the tip of one finger.
I figured that if I waited a minute, Edward would stop laughing and answer my question. But he didn’t, and I was hungry.
So I shrugged my shoulders. And took a bite.