Ovid in the "Art of Love" once said: “Do not blame a girl for flaws on her nature or person. Where’s the advantage of that? Better pretend them away.” … “Dialectic can make grace out of any defect.”
My exploration of all things “Foodie” led this intrepid explorer to an event devoted to issues of all things edible. Through a campus student club and the Dill Pickle- one of two food co-ops here in Chicago- I was able volunteer for my first ever TEDx Food viewing party! For those of you who don’t know what TED is, it’s an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Slogan: “Ideas worth spreading.” These are conferences populated by idea movers and shakers in many fields, subjects, and trains of thought. They’re global, some are local, and others have a special subject area. The “x” means that they’re independently produced. This particular one was TEDx Manhattan, and explored aspects of food, called “Changing What We Eat.” Between working the Dill Pickle’s table and guiding guests to the event area, I happened to see one talk in particular that really impressed me. Food and Wine Magazine editor Dana Cowin's speech about so called “Ugly Food.”
This has nothing to do with it having a nice personality- although if you actually look online at some posted pictures, you will see some artful, curious, or even odd looking ones. What I learned from her talk is this: commercial sellers often have strict cosmetic standards for the produce they send. If your apples, onions, carrots and whatnot don’t fit a standard that would make it aesthetically pleasing, it’s seen as not marketable. Meaning it wouldn’t sell at the store. This just doesn’t cover dings and scars- think about any oddly shaped, ‘deformed’, or even non-symmetrical produce. Cowin states “If we can redefine what we believe is desirable in food we can reduce waste and, at the same time, embrace and eat delicious, nutritious food.” This prompted me to do some digging.
I read this to mean that if we prioritize what is most important about the food we eat- the quality and healthful benefits, as well as taste- then we’ll understand that the cosmetics shouldn’t matter. Letting an asymmetrical bell pepper or a curly green onion go to waste is prioritizing its appearance over its benefits and use. Dana Gunders, a food and agricultural scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco wrote a report called “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40% of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Part of this waste is due to cosmetic concerns. “Misshapen” produce is sometimes used for animal feed. She says that this perfectly good food could be used to feed humans. British activist Tristram Stewart is a Food Waste Rebel who has been crusading this cause for over 20 years. The pigs he feeds eat what could be going to people- and a revolution is needed to wake us all up. Due in part to his efforts, “ugly” produce is now a marketable concept in Europe. What would go to waste is sometimes sold at a discount to shoppers. This also leads to less waste, and even the beginning of a trend, extolling the virtues of perfectly good, imperfectly grown food. Some European stores have begun marketing this “inglorious” produce.
But is it fair to call this healthy, perfectly good nutritious food "ugly"? Beauty is in the eye of the holder. It may be a clichéd catchphrase for some, so do an online search for images of ‘wonky’, ‘ugly’, or ‘inglorious’ produce. I dare you. Some are bulbous, twisty, and curly- pick a word- or make up your own. Some even have interesting connotations. Dialectic might make grace of any defect- but if a fruit or veggie is whole, nutritious, and maybe a bit ‘scarred’ does this represent a defect in the actual food? Does a ripe and rich organic tomato called ‘ugly’ taste not as sweet? By the Bard, it does! The produce you eat doesn’t have to look like Stephen Hamilton “food porn.” Ideas like Tristram’s have already spread here in the United States.
Greenling, a grocery store in Texas, offers produce “seconds” that cost less than the cosmetically perfect stuff. Fresh Direct has a one to five star rating system to let their New York and Philadelphia customers decide what they want. These are but two examples I’ve found that show the movement might be spreading beyond its nascent stages. I can’t wait to see how the movement is translated here in the U.S. Besides- I’d like to see the name change to “Gnarly.” I think that “Gnarly Produce” best describes the produce here. Millennials use what once was a derogatory term to mean something seriously good. I also see “Gnarly” as not being anything mainstream or middle of the road. Nonconformist. Different- and in this case different isn’t just good, it is very, very good. Last summer, cruising farmer’s markets taught me that if you linger around some produce stands near closing time, you can score some primo gnarly stuff fairly cheap. Seriously. Given the choice to take back unsold merchandise or sell at a discount, the seller usually chooses the latter. The first time I did this, I scored a handful of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. Gnarly? Yes. Delicious? Beyond! The skins were thin, inner fruit juicy, sweet, and no cardboard texture that I’m used to in much "prettier" produce.
If I had judged them by appearances, I would have overlooked them. Lesson learned. Am I asking you to lower your standards for food? Not at all. What I am asking you to do is to take the advice and experience of experts in the field like Cowin and Stewart. Then get MAD (online). MAD is like TED - it’s based in Copenhagen, Denmark (MAD is the Danish word for food), and the speakers are food related. The conferences are populated by chefs, farmers, writers, historians, and anyone with a vested interest in the food ways systems of the world. They have talks like TED, and one issue they’ve addressed is food waste. Isabel Soares is a Portuguese CSA worker who specializes in what she calls “Fruta Feia” or “Ugly Fruit.” Her experience with this began in November of 2013 when she read about food waste and asked her uncle (who is a farmer) about it. Sure enough, he had thrown away forty percent of his pear crop because they didn’t grow big enough for suppliers. According to her MAD talk, this motivated her to find a market for them in Lisbon. Not only did this produce become popular, her CSA customers were so supportive that they helped buy a new vehicle after their only van caught fire.
Hundreds of customers and a long waiting list later, Soares showed that not only is there a demand for this wonderful food, but that people see the value in it and appreciate the effort. Potential food waste has even been featured in fine dining. Dan Barber, the chef of New York’s Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill, invited chefs to make dishes made of food that would be left for waste. He believes that we should not just be eating the entire animal, but the entire farm. Once again, an advocate of Gnarly Produce and Whole Animal- but then there’s more. In an article titled “How I Turn Wasted Food into Michelin Starred Meals,” Barber mentions dishes made from other food. More to the point, he found that when he tried to “invent” a new dish made from what would be waste food, it was already a mainstay for someone else. The mash made from stale bread to make a new bun was news to him-not for a fellow chef whose grandmother did the same thing for him as a child.
Fried leftover Skate cartilage turned out to be a Cantonese dish. What surprised me was this: an old tough rooster that is perfect for Coq Au Vin gets made into dog food here in the United States. This was the food of the poor peasants, and those who had to be resourceful and not wasteful through circumstance. This kind of cooking now is given a label, literature and marketing. Words like “Whole Animal,” Sustainable,” and maybe even “Gnarly” will be used to describe what marginalized populations have been doing all along. What is now being embraced by those in the know was once “ugly” inedible, or even not considered to be proper food. Who knows what will happen if this ‘inglorious’ food winds up having a certain “cache’? A little appreciation and perspective, one hopes- and much less waste as well.
Do you have any tips to reduce food waste? Will you be haggling for "gnarly" produce this summer at farmers' markets? Let us know by commenting below or hitting us up on any of our social media accounts. Don't forget to tag @Foodseum and use the hashtag #FeedYourCuriosity
Komala Hayes is from Gary, IN and resides in Chicago where she obtained a Master’s degree in Sociological Theory, Culture, and Food. For Komala, the perfect meal can be had in many places, and inspiration fuels discovery, experimentation, and learning. She draws culinary inspiration from her mom, Julia Child, PBS and libraries -as they all take her to different worlds. She is currently working on a short science fiction story based on the concept of imaginary time.