Garbage Gourmet: Taste-Treats in the Trash

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Becca Tucker "leaning in".
Becca Tucker "leaning in". Photo Credit: Joe Gara

BEDFORD, N.Y. -- These days I can't pass a garbage pile without sticking my head and most of my torso into the can. Usually I find something irresistible. 

At the end of my shared driveway, for instance, is a recycling bin that’s a constant source of useful flotsam like empty ice cream cartons that can be turned into flats to start seeds, glass pickle jars that make ant-proof food storage containers, egg cartons to hold and give away our own chickens’ eggs, juice jugs that can be transformed into sap buckets and attached to one of the sugar maples in our yard. Whenever I pass the recycle bin on foot, headed to the park for a jog, its siren song compels me to flip open the top and insert myself at the waist.

I’ve always had some hobo-inspired tendencies, like swiping morsels from departed restaurant patrons’ plates. For a newspaper story I wrote years ago, I spent three days living exclusively on food I dumpster-dove. But until recently, I saw myself as basically profligate: after dinners with college friends, when they’d start dissecting the bill, I’d throw down more than my share and wander across the street to window shop. These days, you’d be more likely to find me out back behind the kitchen, looking for scraps to feed my chickens.

After a small dinner party at my mom’s apartment in D.C., I pulled from her kitchen trash an avian feast: a baked potato, beet peelings, salad greens and cantaloupe rinds, plus a container of spoiled sour cream.

“Really? You’re going to take that all the way home?” Even my mom, the notorious family pack rat, was surprised. “Do not forget it in my fridge.”

I put a garbage can in the lunchroom at work specifically for food scraps for aforementioned chickens. At the end of the day, if no one’s in the lunch room, I sift through the main garbage for apple cores and bread crusts that didn’t make it into the food scraps bin. It doesn’t exactly enhance my professional image to be rooting around in my co-workers’ soggy half sandwiches, I admit. I haven’t figured out what “leaning in” means but I don’t think it’s supposed to be this literal.

Husband Joe has developed garbage-vision in step with mine. He calls it “a different level of consciousness.” He’s been re-using squares of tinfoil, saran wrap, the bags from cereal boxes, even the oil left over after making home fries, which he served in a saucer at breakfast recently. “Seems a shame to waste it,” he said, as we dutifully swirl forkfuls in the viscous orange liquid.

A Buenos Aires newspaper reported that every month Jorge Bergoglio, better known now as Pope Francis, returned 30 rubber bands from the daily newspapers that were delivered to his house to the kiosk whence they came.

The pioneering farmer, Mark, who became the subject of the memoir The Dirty Life, kept a ball of used dental floss, in case someday he had to sew up a hole in his pants. Angry environmental activist Derrick Jensen spent nine years dumpster diving foodstuffs like watermelons and expired ice cream that he fed to himself, his cats, dogs and chickens.

A constant awareness of what’s being tossed can be wearing. Side effects include depression, disgust, despair, empathy with the Unabomber. Part of me wishes I could go back to tuning out the pile of “obsolete” electronics (obsolescence is relative. I’ve seen flat-screen TVs in there) that I drive past on my way to work. 

How the single village of Florida, NY can excrete an endless stream of televisions, printers, scanners, and fax machines is a question that plagues me.

Still our ranks continue to grow. The morning after her dinner party, my mom was slicing up the remainder of the cantaloupe for breakfast. “The chickens love cantaloupe rinds?” she said, opening the fridge to put sections of rind into the bag of scraps that I was going to take home. “You feed them this and you get eggs,” she said. “I’m getting it.”

Becca Tucker is the Editor of Dirt, a magazine devoted to healthy living. Check it out at

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Comments (8)

Everyday is a school day.
As a child, I never knew what mayonnaise tasted like. My dad was convinced it was to risky, especially in summer because you could get ptomaine poisoning.

ptomaine poisoning
a term commonly misapplied to food poisoning. Contrary to popular belief, ptomaines are not injurious to the carnivorous or omnivorous digestive systems, which are quite capable of reducing them to harmless substances. Decomposed foods are often responsible for food poisoning, however, because they may harbor certain forms of poison-producing bacteria, especially Clostridium botulinum.

I use mayonnaise now but I still prefer miracle whip for my own tuna or mac salad, just because it's what I remember as tasting good.

Garbage pails are just that to me, there is Nothing retrievable from a garbage pail.

Broad, - you're right.

I had to laugh. I grew up with the same issues. When we had backyard picnics, the salads containing mayo were only served in the house and if you had any, you'd better eat it quick 'cause Ptomaine would get you if you didn't watch out! For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why Ptomaine like potato salad and cole slaw so much. I think I was about 10 or 11 before I figured out that Ptomaine wasn't some monster from the black lagoon, but really food poisoning. Maybe that's why I prefer the German versions with oil and vinegar rather than mayo.

Of course, today, we can actually identify the exact strain of E. coli or salmonella that caused the illness. The thing that scares me the most is that a couple of the last major outbreaks of E. coli have been traced back to green, leafy vegetables like lettuce and I think even tomatoes were identified as the source for one outbreak. How the heck did we survive back in the day??

We come from sturdy stock! ;-)

No, I thought it was you!

We just recently donated a large amount of brown rice that had gone rancid to a friend's flock of chickens. (Take away - store brown rice in freezer) And I'm saving egg cartons for someone else who has more eggs than cartons. Right now, there are two large cake containers from past birthday parties that are waiting to be used as mini greenhouses. Our empty ice cream containers (a true sacrifice for the cause) are used for extra cooking grease containers. It's finally clicked with my family that milk that has gone sour is the basis for sour dough bread. So I get the recycling concept.

But I would be cautious about food for human consumption. It's one thing for me to collect all the untouched olives and pickles from my family's plates at a restaurant and a whole different thing to take food from plates of diners you don't know. Food from garbage cans? To me, that an invitation for ptomaine poisoning, especially as the weather gets warmer.

This writer gives me the strong feeling that early childhood deprivation is fueling her obsession. You swiped "morsels from departed restaurant patrons' plates"-- to eat yourself? Really?

People waste so much these days. I always bring doggie bags home from restaurants. If my kids leave part of their dinner at restaurants, I take theirs. Sometimes we eat it or we give it to our dogs to mix with the dry dog food. It makes their food taste better and we save money on dog food. I recycle all sorts of things.I try not to waste anything.