How to em­brace your in­ner trash an­i­mal

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRAY CHAPMAN New York Times

In the 1973 an­i­mated clas­sic “Char­lotte’s Web,” an en­tire mu­si­cal num­ber is ded­i­cated to the film’s an­tag­o­nist, a rat named Tem­ple­ton, feast­ing on garbage at the county fair. He tosses ap­ple cores, ba­nana peels and turkey legs down his craw with aban­don. At one point, he jug­gles snacks for­aged from the dump­ster while si­mul­ta­ne­ously us­ing a dis­carded melon rind as a surf­board. The rat doesn’t merely sur­vive on garbage – he thrives among it.

Now, as hu­mans around the world bed down in their nests, many are faced with the fact of their own mount­ing trash. Even those who once dili­gently gath­ered their onion skins and cit­rus husks for com­post may now be stuck with a de­ci­sion: freeze their or­ganic waste for stock or throw it away?

Out of anx­i­ety, guilt, new­found virtue, fru­gal­ity or a com­bi­na­tion of the above, some fre­quent tosser-out­ers are chang­ing their habits, whirling car­rot tops into pesto and gid­dily watch­ing their green onions grow tiny roots in jars of wa­ter.

In the face of pan­demic, cli­mate dread and the seem­ingly cease­less pa­rade of macabre that is the news, sav­ing a cou­ple of onions from the dump­ster may feel akin to re­ar­rang­ing the deck chairs on the Ti­tanic.

But as Te­jal Rao put it re­cently in The New York Times, “it could also shape a col­lec­tive re­sponse, and all of these small habits could add up to a mean­ing­ful shift that changes our food cul­ture.” And on the most in­di­vid­ual level, these small grasps at sovereignt­y may also yield some scrap of agency over our own lives.

Here are a hand­ful of things you can make with your would-be garbage.

Kami Ahrens, an as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor at the Fox­fire Foun­da­tion, an Ap­palachian her­itage preser­va­tion cen­ter in Moun­tain City, Ge­or­gia, said 20th­cen­tury Ap­palachian home­stead­ers were scrupu­lous about con­serv­ing and re­pur­pos­ing their hard-fought re­sources. “There was a say­ing that when you used a hog, you used ev­ery­thing but the squeal,” she said.

An­i­mal fat, for in­stance, was used to bake corn­bread, sea­son cast iron, and make soaps and can­dles.

To set a fire-lit mood in your home, sim­mer pork or beef fat at a low tem­per­a­ture on the stove, or in a crock pot for sev­eral hours with a bit of wa­ter. Skim the solids that rise to the top, then pour the left­over liq­uid into a jar. Dip a wick into the jar, and voilà: You have a per­fectly ser­vice­able can­dle that, lack­ing as it may be in aes­thet­ics, can do won­ders for your sense of self-suf­fi­ciency. And, Ahrens said re­as­sur­ingly, it won’t smell like meat.

Onion skins, beet tops, car­rot leaves, av­o­cado pits and tea bags can all be used as nat­u­ral dyes, which are less sat­u­rated but yield pleas­antly muted hues. Av­o­cado pits will lend a soft blush tone, cof­fee lands some­where on the ochre-to-sand spec­trum, and hi­bis­cus tea im­parts mauves and muted reds.

Even the cook­ing wa­ter from black beans can be used, ac­cord­ing to Anas­ta­sia Cole Plakias, a founder of the rooftop farm­ing com­pany Brook­lyn Grange. “It makes a re­ally beau­ti­ful, very pale blue,” she said. Plakias also makes wa­ter­col­ors from veg­etable dyes and even uses beets to add color, and sub­tle sweet­ness, to frost­ing.

The dye­ing process re­quires brew­ing a con­cen­trated tea from your in­gre­di­ents, then sim­mer­ing un­bleached nat­u­ral fabric, like cot­ton, linen or wool, in the dye. To do this, you’ll need a pot ded­i­cated to dye­ing and a mor­dant, which fixes the color in place. Typ­i­cally peo­ple buy alum, although other folk so­lu­tions in­clude boil­ing a pot of old nails. (This is why you do not want to use your dye pot for cook­ing later.)

Si­mon Perez, who de­vel­oped recipes for “Fu­ture Food To­day,” a cook­book fo­cused on sus­tain­able eat­ing, said crushed eggshells could be blended with wa­ter to give plants a boost of cal­cium and mag­ne­sium, and cof­fee grounds sprin­kled di­rectly on the soil add a jolt of ni­tro­gen.

Ahrens, of Fox­fire, rec­om­mends dry­ing out chicken bones in a de­hy­dra­tor or low-tem­per­a­ture oven, then grind­ing them into bone meal with a food pro­ces­sor. (“You can also mash them with a ham­mer,” she said.) The re­sult is a fer­til­izer rich in phos­pho­rus, one of the pri­mary nu­tri­ents plants re­quire.

In the past few weeks, re­grow­ing scal­lions ap­pears to have sup­planted sour­dough bak­ing as the iso­la­tion cop­ing mech­a­nism of choice. Al­li­ums in gen­eral are well suited for re­grow­ing, as are cel­ery crowns, herbs like mint and even pineap­ple tops (although, in the best of cir­cum­stances, it would be a few years be­fore you would see any fruit from your la­bor).

Yolanda Gon­za­lez, an ur­ban agri­cul­ture spe­cial­ist with Cor­nell Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion, said green onions were the eas­i­est to re­gen­er­ate: “All you have to do is cut them from about an inch from the roots and leave them in a glass of wa­ter.” She rec­om­mended ex­per­i­ment­ing with Egyp­tian walk­ing onions, which form bul­bils that can be bro­ken off and re­planted.

Af­ter brew­ing a pot of cof­fee at home, Claire Sprouse doesn’t al­ways toss her spent grounds. In­stead, she makes what she calls “old-brew,” run­ning the grounds through a sec­ond brew cy­cle. The bit­ter, di­luted re­sult isn’t some­thing you’d nec­es­sar­ily want to drink out of a cof­fee mug, but when com­bined with equal parts sugar, it be­comes a syrup ideal for use in an es­presso mar­tini or an old-fash­ioned.

Sprouse, whose Brook­lyn cafe and bar, Hunky Dory, has been in limbo since mid-March, has been cook­ing at home much more than usual. “The ca­pac­ity for food waste right now is very high,” she said.

In­spired by the chal­lenge, Sprouse reached out to bar­tenders around the coun­try for cock­tail recipes that make use of kitchen scraps. The re­sult­ing col­lec­tion, “Op­ti­mistic Cock­tails,” is avail­able on­line, as a PDF, for $15; all pro­ceeds will go to the con­tribut­ing bars and a group of funds for work­ers with­out le­gal sta­tus. Recipes in­clude a drink in­cor­po­rat­ing a ba­nana peel syrup with rum, lime and or­ange juice.

This is the time to em­brace ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, Sprouse said, tast­ing as you go and mak­ing tweaks along the way. “You never know what magic can come from that.”

TONY CENICOLA NYT

Crushed eggshells can be blended with wa­ter to give plants a boost of cal­cium and mag­ne­sium.

TONY CENICOLA NYT

Some pro­duce, like scal­lions, ro­maine let­tuce and car­rot tops, can be re­gen­er­ated in wa­ter.

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