Most culinary artists know how to whip up a great pasta with pesto sauce – but what about pesto made from thrown-out carrot tops? The cafe and skills-sharing co-op Le Milieu featured this recipe and more last week as part of its “Dumpster Dining” workshop. In honour of Quebec’s Waste Reduction Week, the workshop taught its attendees how to cook with seeds, peels, and other fruit and vegetable byproducts that normally go to waste.
Similar workshops promoting food waste reduction were held across the province throughout the week, pulling a less-discussed aspect of food sustainability out of the dump and into the spotlight. North America’s destructive food system is increasingly attracting attention, from the 2008 documentary film Food, Inc. to the release of the documentary Cowspiracy this year. As more and more people adopt vegan diets, and as eco-friendly cafes pop up across the city, talk of food sustainability has been focusing more on what we eat than how we eat it. But with the average Canadian household chucking up to half their fridge’s contents in the trash each week, events like this point to the importance of questioning a broader culture of consumption that makes some uncomfortable with the idea of wilting food scraps on their dinner plates.
But these scraps are exactly what I found at the workshop. The evening’s unusual ingredients were carrot and sweet potato peels, freshly-gutted pumpkin seeds, leafy carrot tops, and apple remnants – seeds, browning peels, and all. With the ingredients at hand, attendees broke into small teams to cook our dumpster dishes, chopping and chatting in the small cafe.
Rachel Chainey, one of the five founders of Le Milieu, facilitated the workshop. Chainey told me that the co-op “wanted to draw attention to the fact that we can actually make delicious food from food that is otherwise thrown in the trash or the compost.” She explained that often “veggies at the market are not chosen because […] they don’t look as beautiful as they could, so they just get thrown away. So some of us do dumpster diving to save them.”
Dumpster diving is sorting through dumpsters – often those of restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores – in search of still-usable food items. “There’s an ethic of dumpster diving,” Chainey explained. “You leave the place as clean or cleaner than you find it, because then there will be no reason for stores to lock their dumpster.” Chainey also confirmed that sanitary concerns are valid. “I think if people eat meat and dairy from a dumpster, they have to be really cautious.” For those with a vegan diet, however, there’s less to worry about. “With veggies and bread, there’s not much risk. Often times [a food item] has been thrown out right away, so it’s not even rotting. […] But even if some parts of it have started to rot, there are some parts that you can save.”
Chainey admitted that with all the guidelines involved, dumpster diving can be very time consuming, and is not an activity to be taken lightly.
For many, dumpster diving is not a lifestyle choice or a questionable fad but a necessity, which makes the unwritten code of diving even more imperative. Le Milieu’s event presented a potential alternative – the ingredients used were recycled scraps from the cafe itself, demonstrating how food conservation can begin by digging through our own kitchen trash.
Between the chopping and the stirring, I also chatted with Kay Noele, a highly involved co-op member, about other food sustainability initiatives at the cafe. “We do a lot of food recovery,” said Noele. “Every Wednesday we get [day-old] bread from the bakery around the corner, and that’s what we serve alongside the soup. […] We try and make sure that we’re really being conscious in everything that we do.” The co-op, which also acts as an open, affordable art studio for the Montreal community, provides other creative and eco-friendly workshops regularly. You can learn anything from quilting with scrap fabric to fermenting vegetables. “So really what [the co-op] is,” explained Noele, “is just a resilient community space that can be so much more than four walls and a door. And we often explode right out of the space.”
Several hours and a few dirtied pots later, we all sat munching on our waste-free creations: pesto made from carrot tops, apple sauce made with entire apples, fried sweet potato peel chips, and sweet jelly from pumpkin seeds. The dishes were big hits. I found myself quickly addicted to the carrot top pesto, and I was not alone.
“I honestly didn’t expect it to be this good,” Stephanie O’Hanley, a longtime Le Milieu supporter, told me as we ate. “I don’t think of [carrot tops] as something that you eat.” Those of us new to radical food conservation echoed O’Hanley’s pleasant surprise. The sweet pumpkin jelly tasted just right on top of the week-old bread saved for the event. “There are a lot of ideas on how to use peels for food or whatever, but you kind of put it on the shelf [and tell yourself] ‘I’ll try that someday,’” said participant Tara Lachapelle. “Now that I’ve actually done it, it’s so much easier to take it home.”
To Chainey, Le Milieu’s participation in Waste Reduction Week seemed like a no-brainer.
“[This event was just one of] a lot of things [we do] that encourage people to be more independent from the mainstream economy and more in solidarity with each other, [to] use their hands, and [to] be gentle to the planet.”
It’s places like Le Milieu that stand out amongst food initiatives, challenging preconceived boundaries between trash and dinner through simple means. Instead of turning dumpster diving into a frivolous pastime, “Dumpster Dining” encourages each of us to be more aware of how we consume. For university students with potentially limited budgets and limited cooking experience, it can be particularly useful to know how to make the most of our ingredients. So the next time you go to throw out that old bread, take moment to stop and think – you may be missing out on a great meal.
Visit facebook.com/cooplemilieu to find out more about Le Milieu and its events.