Against Foodies: Lessons from Eating Out of the Trash
Consuming the Dregs of Capitalist Excess
Tenth Avenue beneath the High Line shoots north like an arrow—unlike Eleventh Avenue, which kind of lolls lazily to the west. My team of freegans went straight up Tenth at a brisk march until we reached 23rd Street. There we made a hard right, moving in a tight peloton toward Eighth Avenue, where, on the curb outside Duane Reade, stood dozens of bulging garbage bags, piled and folded on top of each other like a pack of seals on a rock, much as legendary local freegan Gary had promised.
“Damn,” one woman grumbled as she snapped on rubber gloves, “black bags.” Black bags meant more work. Specifically, we’d have to open them before determining if what was inside was worth investigating. White bags were transparent enough to save that step. And not only did the black bags have to be unknotted, but the knots themselves seemed to have been cinched by people with anger issues. At least a dozen people converged on the heap and started wrestling with the bags. There is, at this point, a picture of me. A line of freegans are bent over the trash in unison, fighting with the knots, while I stand nervously in the middle of them, ramrod straight, like a quarterback behind an offensive line before the play starts, unsure how to proceed. Janet, who was on the other side of the pile, noticed my hesitation and said, “It can be a big step to take food.” Yes, it can.
The group’s collective effort to unknot every bag without ripping it halted the chatter with a spell of concentration. And then, as if on cue, bag upon bag came open, goods spilled into view, and a more purposeful chatter resumed. “Candy!” was the first declaration I heard. “Hard candy. Who wants it?” Immediately, someone yelled back, “Why would you throw out hard candy?” but before he could finish, a young woman was almost screaming, “Mine! Mine! I need that! Please,” and was scooping handfuls of it into her empty leather backpack.
She was thin and athletic looking, not the sort of person you’d suspect would gorge on lollipops. “You’re going to eat all that?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I need it for an art project.” I asked her what kind of art she made. “Abstract,” she said, as she stuffed Jolly Ranchers into her pocket. The call-and-response continued, highlighting the presence of more hard candy, marshmallows, chips of all flavors, and granola bars. Tons of granola bars. Up until this point, I’d been standing to the side, observing the chaos unfold, still playing the role of hesitant quarterback behind my steady offensive line. I’m not a squeamish person. But something about the dive was keeping me at a distance. Perhaps it was the parting comment a wry doctor friend of mine made when I left for New York: “Have a good time getting hepatitis!”
But eventually I screwed my courage to the sidewalk and found a slightly collapsed black bag, grabbed it roughly by the neck with my ungloved hands (a sure sign of inexperience), cranked open the knot, looked inside its black maw, and yelled out my first official discovery as a New York City Dumpster diver: “Condoms!” And then, emboldened veteran that I now was, I rummaged further, pushing aside Styrofoam packing material, and hollering with pride into the nighttime air the pragmatic object of my next find: “Tampons!”
I’d been warned. Still, it was hard for me to fathom just how much stuff there was for the taking. As my team picked through an industrial effusion of junk, the two problems we had discussed earlier became manifestly evident: space and time. This was a drug store, so there were more semidurable goods (tampons, condoms, bottles of soda, boxes of cereal) than perishable fresh foods. The relative bulk of these items required the freegans, most of them with nothing more than backpacks, to limit their catch, although some freegans would unpack, say, a box of cereal, take out the plastic bag containing the product, and leave behind the bulkier box. And as for time, Janet said we were running out of it, and quickly. She gave us seven minutes to retie and restack all the bags and do a thorough trash check of the sidewalk before moving to the next site. “Neater than we found it,” insisted Dave, who was dragging away two small plastic bags of toiletries.
Just before leaving Duane Reade, I learned about a third problem that sometimes nagged the Dumpster diver. As we were packing up, a woman announced with notable enthusiasm that she’d found soft bags of precooked wild rice. The discovery of genuinely healthy food had considerable appeal after an hour of methodically combing through a bunch of crap I’d never eat. Several of us went over to take a look, only to find that the store manager (presumably not freegan-friendly), perhaps to dissuade the episodic mayhem of the Dumpster dive, had sliced open the pouches holding the wild rice, making them far less attractive to consume. I took it as an obvious gesture of hostility—don’t come back here!—and, now that I was sharing the field with my new comrades, all of whom I sensed to be good-hearted activists, I found myself deeply annoyed with this small gesture to sabotage the sabotagers.“We’re just trying to highlight food waste and feed people.”
“Why do that?” I asked Janet. She shook her head. She said that a surprising number of people did not like what we were out here doing. Public hostility to the collective Dumpster-dive effort became more obvious when we were digging through trash at the next site—the Westside Market (located at Seventh Avenue and 15th Street). To get there, we flat-out ran. Janet thought the trash trucks wouldn’t give us more than 30 minutes at the site (they were in fact late), and the load there was judged by Gary’s recon mission to be substantial, maybe a third larger than at Duane Reade, and full of fresh food. So we took off at a brisk pace. I wear a Garmin running watch and, out of curiosity, I set it to measure my pace. At one point I was running an eight-and-a-half-minute mile. Encountering piles of white bags (good!) and cardboard boxes (untaped!), we converged like the vultures we seemed intent on emulating.
By this point I had more than eased into the deeper rhythm of the experience, seduced by the challenge as well as the thrill of making especially bountiful discoveries. Running through the city on a beautiful evening, looking for free food, turned out to have an unexpected allure. I was flattered, moreover, when I undid a brown cardboard box to find a mess of greens—primarily arugula and spinach—and a roar of approval greeted my discovery. As I passed the box around, a well-dressed man in his sixties walked over to us and, in a sharp angry tone, asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” I looked over. “Are you proud of what you’re doing? Are you homeless?” His voice was slurred, and he shuffled a little, recovered, and asked, “Can you justify your behavior?”
Such shit happens, of course. But this cranky codger with his shiny loafers, pressed slacks, and three-martini attitude was too much for me to bear. But Janet, with an almost eerie calm, went into crisis-control mode. She repeated in the kindest voice possible her public-service mantra: “We’re just trying to highlight food waste and feed people.” The man looked down on her as if she were a bug he wanted to squash. “You people,” he seethed, “you people are drunk on your own privilege.” He then turned away and theatrically marched off. “You’re just drunk,” the guy next to me muttered as he sorted through the greens I’d found and put several handfuls in his saddle bag.
But the tide of curbside opinion soon turned. Five minutes later a young woman who had just moved into an apartment on the same block saw us in action and began asking how she could join us for the next outing. “You guys are awesome,” she added. So there was that.
By this point, as we were cleaning up the sidewalk after our second surgical strike, I’d come to appreciate how, beyond dietary restrictions, different freegans had different standards about what they would take home and eat. One person I met, an Asian woman in her fifties, seemed completely undiscriminating. Whatever was technically digestible she took, presumably digested, and lived through the experience to become a stronger scavenger. She sacked away in her feedbag piles of slimy greens, very tired apples, and even a package of browned-over ground beef with the plastic seal punctured.
I asked her if she felt safe eating food that had been so exposed to the elements and, in some cases, mildly decomposed (and, to be sure, it was not safe to do so). She seemed a little annoyed with my question, as if she was tired of people asking it. She sighed and explained that it was fine as long as you washed everything and cooked it well enough. “It has only been out here an hour or so,” she noted, before diving back into a trash bag.
Others followed more discerning standards. Several freegans I spoke to were happy to take food exposed to the elements as long as it looked and smelled fresh. Others, though, would eat only nonperishable food sealed in containers. My own quickly evolving standard, to my surprise, proved to be on the more flexible end of the spectrum. By 10 pm, it had allowed me to eat, in addition to the wasabi crisps (from a sealed bag), a bagel, two apples, some raw spinach, and a gulp of rice milk straight from the container, all shared with the team. Worse meals have been consumed on the fly, for free.
By 11 pm, the city was in high gear. Sidewalks were crowded with people moving to the hum of the street, the “blab of the pave” as Whitman once put it. In the middle of our third mission (at Elm Health), I took a break and texted a friend I’d planned on having dinner with (I’d been texting her all evening saying “I need more time, sorry!”). In this text I suggested a rain check. But, she reminded me, this was New York and, she added, you could eat at midnight, and it was fun to do that. So no worries. She was happy to wait.
I dove into one last industrial plastic bag, sorted through boxes of “organic purple corn flakes,” dinner rolls, and bananas. (Bananas!— Brett? Where’s Brett? He’d already left.) So my last gesture before leaving was to thank Janet, hand to her a remarkably clean and perfectly ripened banana, and find a bathroom (Starbucks) to wash my hands. I then started walking toward the West Village, to meet my friend, who was waiting for me at a sushi place on University Place right near Washington Square Park.
My Dumpster dive was an illuminating experience. The freegans I met were generous people who were morally concerned with the excesses of our food system, concerned enough to hunt down and swallow its waste, some of it not so appealing. But, in part because of their generosity, they seemed, at first glance, to have very little to offer the food system of the future. By consuming the dregs of the very network they despised, they were, in a very modest way, cleaning it up. They were not, to any extent I could discern, pushing the food system in a new direction. They ostensibly did very little to challenge the actual form of the thing itself.
Still, even if I didn’t fully embrace the ideology, I appreciated the movement’s anticapitalist stance. I understood its intention and could see how it informed their actions. But the outcome of that ideology was something altogether different than what was articulated. Any prospect that freegan dollars being withheld from the grand comestible capitalist enterprise would somehow starve the beast from within struck me as implausible, especially given how few freegans were able to take their actions to the extreme place of a total boycott.
And then there was the problem of perception. The New York freegans were, to their credit, remarkably self-aware about how they were perceived. They worked hard to counter the notion that Dumpster diving was crassly self-serving or little more than hipster slumming (as suggested by the drunk guy who verbally accosted us). The perception is hardly the fault of the freegan, who, again, seemed to do everything possible to be unassuming, decent, and polite. But there is evidently something inherent in the idea of trash—maybe our evolutionary association of it with disgust—that seemed to make it impossible for a lot of observers to accept as food. So, for the moment at least, my skepticism seemed to be in the same place as it was before I went Dumpster diving.
But that all changed when I got downtown.
I arrived at the West Village sushi place by 11:30. Within minutes of entering the restaurant, my friend and I, menus in hand, were sitting at a bar table interpreting a multipage oceanic underworld of consumer choice. Tuna, snapper, clams, sea urchin, salmon, eel, bonito, Toro—the list was long and, yes, diverse, and most of the goods were displayed right in front of us, jammed into plastic cases, much of flown in that day from around the world.
But this was totally the wrong kind of list, the wrong kind of diverse. This food should not have been slabs of pink, red, and white flesh pressed into the shield of a sushi bar; the flesh should have been on the bodies of fish once swimming in the sea. All of this food was high-impact, a further drag on the oceanic ecosystem, where most fish are overfished, shipped in from netherworlds by airplane, and, alas, thrown out. I refrained from ordering fish, sticking instead to vegetable sushi, steamed edamame, spring rolls, and a beer. The chef gave me a look. My friend had a little sashimi but otherwise ordered more or less as I did. Still, the bill came to $150.
Not a shocking figure, especially in New York City. But not totally unworthy of reflection, either. It’s not a question I typically ask on the rare occasions when I dine out, but then again I’m typically not dining out after an evening spent rummaging through trash. So I found myself wondering: What exactly was I paying for? The answer, cohering while I took a long postdinner walk back to my Midtown hotel, and then requiring an hour of note taking, turned out to be more complicated than I’d imagined. But the short answer was that I was paying less for “food” and more for “the experience of eating.” And it was in my realization of this distinction that the wisdom of the Dumpster dive finally stuck to something more significant than a quixotic idea about overturning capitalism or, less quixotically, making a dent in something as tangible as food waste. It was in that distinction that I began to take seriously the proposition that the restaurant as we know it may also need to be fundamentally reimagined as an element of the future food system.
Dumpster-diving may do nothing to confront capitalism. But it fosters a dramatically pared-down and unadorned way of looking at food. From the perspective of the street, a carrot is a carrot; an avocado is an avocado; soybeans are soybeans; rice is rice; beer is beer. You find it; you share it or keep it; you consume it; you move on, nourished and sated. But in the context of an architecturally sleek sushi place in a fashionable part of Manhattan, under the curatorial care of an enrobed sushi chef wielding cutlery that costs more than monthly rent, in a dining room of coupled-off diners secluded from each other, the meaning of these ingredients becomes transformed into something altogether more complicated. And not necessarily in a good way.
Restaurants—like the food system—have their own elaborate chain of events that usher us into a “food experience.” The events that comprise this experience—the airlifted fish, the attractive hostess, the abstract art hanging on the walls, the dim lighting, the polished server on site “to take care” of patrons, and so on—have a way of alienating higher-end restaurant food from the food itself. Consider the elaborate menu descriptions— “Kent Garden pea purée”—frequently reducing food to senseless verbiage, and the distance only increases. Calorically and nutritionally what we eat remains the same, but its essence as food for sustenance or nourishment or community yields to food as culture, luxury experience, literary puffery, and entertainment, not to mention a $150 check. It’s sometimes said that all food “comes with a story.” Dumpster-diving has a nice way of getting to the simplest version of that narrative. A conventional restaurant, by contrast, draws it out into something episodic and indulgent and overly expensive.
The translation from “food as food” to “food as experience” or “food as story” is something we widely celebrate as defining historical and cultural developments. It seems the foodie media cultivates heroic narratives woven around cuisine and those who prepare it as a form of highbrow nostalgia. It’s one of those assumptions—the experience of formally eating out—that we practically never question. Which is strange because, just as with agriculture per se, eating out is a relatively new behavior as well. Beyond all the marketing jargon and foodie hype, there are some unsavory ulterior motives that we might do well to appreciate. Notably, perhaps more than ever, high-end dining might be all about the rarest and finest talent, ingredients, and taste (with Chez Panisse as the model). But, as a result, it also offers an easy means of achieving status, distinction, and, for the fancier venues, bragging rights.
And while there’s always a case to made for the pursuit of status, distinction, and bragging rights through culinary consumption, the freegans remind us that “food as experience” has social consequences that I can assure you most food writers will never reveal, much less notice. Through their gritty egalitarian ethos, the freegans remind us that eating is more than a gestural social act—it is, when made exclusive, a social act with social consequences. They remind us that, for one, when you spend a lot of money in a restaurant, it’s not just food that’s alienated from food. Nor is it just people alienated from food (no matter how tasty the food is, as taste is perhaps the most superficial way to connect with food). People are alienated from people.Through their gritty egalitarian ethos, the freegans remind us that eating is more than a gestural social act—it is, when made exclusive, a social act with social consequences.
Restaurants channel us into culinary classes. They use food to make us strangers to each other. They segregate us by the varied experience of our plates. Like shoes and vacation spots, restaurant experiences drive hard wedges into society. They turn food into weapons of the wealthy, promoting the narcissism of big differences. Privileged consumers have made Facebook postings of fancy food a cottage industry that aims to price out the masses. The dining hoi polloi eat Sysco-delivered food microwaved in the “kitchen” at Applebee’s and typically do not text their friends pictures of their fried cheese sticks and margarita mixed drinks (well, maybe they do, but that’s for another rant). If you don’t think this distinction drives us apart, then you must think that nothing drives us apart.
As you might guess, I generally dislike eating out. I especially dislike eating out at fancy places (I sound like a lot fun, right?). But I say this after having done it a lot, often with some gusto, most of it back in my twenties and early thirties, when I made it a conspicuous mission in my life to eat at Europe’s and America’s best restaurants. I don’t even want to think about the grand sum of money and time and utter foolishness I dumped into eating all that rich, absurdly fine food. Naturally, I can now look back and ask myself the obvious questions: Did I consume absolutely stunning food? Did I enjoy tastes that made me swoon? Did I sit in gorgeous rooms full of gorgeous people? Did I eat foie gras at a café in Paris that made my eyes water with pleasure?
You bet I did.
But I was immature and insecure and used food as a social booster into a world I ultimately found to be shallow, incurious, indulgent, and, really, not the least interested in knowing where food truly came from. Worse, however unknowingly, I was contributing to systematic food waste, chronic worker exploitation, tremendous greenhouse gas emissions, and the polarization of the food system along exclusionary lines that my new freegan friends—who were doing their best to rectify some of these problems—rightly found abhorrent. The more I thought about it, especially in the context of the freegan experience, the more I agreed with these fearless trash pickers. Garbage is the ultimate leveler.
Imagine a world without traditional restaurants. No more ridiculous faux literary descriptions of otherwise honest food (“scratch-cooked,” “house-made,” “aigre-doux,” and my favorite, “hand-cracked eggs”). No more clichéd restaurant reviews (with all those “decadent” deserts, “cozy” interiors, “yummy” food all “washed down with” some vintage or other), no more waiting a month to score a 5 pm reservation at the latest fad-dish place, with names like “Barley Swine,” “Sway,” and “Wink,” spending a couple of hundred dollars, shooting an Instagram food story, and forgetting what you ate a day later. No more chain imitations that adopt the ersatz trappings of superior eateries—all those Olive Gardens and Outback Steakhouses, Applebee’s and Chili’s. And best of all: no more fast food.
But what about jobs goes the familiar refrain. As for the culinary talent that would be forced from the kitchens of America’s restaurants, they could take it to the streets. Food trucks, open-air food courts, family-style food halls all lend themselves to less waste, greater flexibility, more simplicity, community cohesion, and easier, more democratic access. No entrée over $10, if I were king. Craft beer everywhere. This is what I learned from the freegans. And I’m aware that it sounds a little nuts. But I look at it this way: If a new restaurant in a bobo section of Austin, my town, can convince people to spend $22 on a hamburger (which I assure you it can), then I’m convinced some innovative young chef with a renegade flair could get these same people not to spend $22 on a hamburger. He could, instead, sell something more original, just as tasty, and far more sustainable. From the helm of a humble food truck, he could convince them to eat promiscuously at an affordable cost. And he could, in the end, invest the choice with real meaning—meaning that’s more about substance than style, more about food than the experience of food. There are other ways to enjoy real food than going to a trendy restaurant, segregating ourselves (on so many levels) from others, paying too much for the “dining experience,” participating in the mythmaking of fancy food, wasting even more food than we do at home, and moving further and further away from the actual food itself, not to mention what it means to eat it. There are better ways to coexist with food, not to mention each other.
We don’t have to start eating out of trash bags to achieve this goal. But in doing so, my Dumpster divers introduced me to a Tao of trash that, while not necessarily uprooting capitalism from its foundation, reminds us that food is, for all the distractions we place between us and what we eat, ultimately about physical sustenance. Dress it up in culture, history, lore, myth, and legend, food is just food. The freegans, the weirdos, the outliers, the rebels—all of them show that the essence of food can be honored with an approach to eating that stresses fellowship, political idealism, community values, and, every now and then, a delicious burst of streetside flavor. Again, when you are eating free meals from trash heaps, everyone is at the same table. It is for this realization, more than any other, that I thank the freegans for what they taught me about food and what it could be.
From Eating Promiscuously: Adventures in the Future of Food by James McWilliams, published by Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2017 by James McWilliams.