Like Templeton, the rat from Charlotte’s Web, I envisioned the Dumpsters of Nashville’s restaurants as a veritable smorgasbord (orgasbord, orgasbord) of leftover top-quality cuisine. Surely, by the end of each night they must brim with uneaten treasures—surplus salmon specials, peppery tangles of arugula salad, hordes of heirloom tomatoes—healthy, high-quality food that gets tossed in the trash for some reason or another. Heck, the freegan subculture has been pilfering Dumpsters for years as their main nutritional resource.
So what better way to put the green in the evergreen season than to rescue this bounty from the jaws of the landfill and repurpose it into a holiday feast? Before donning my Wellies to wade through that fine fantasy of refuse, I called a few chefs and grocery store folks to get an idea of what treasures I might find—or, more specifically, if I could intercept said salvage on its way from the kitchen to the curb.
I emphasized that I didn’t want to divert any food from another nutritional calling. I wanted nothing that would otherwise go to Nashville’s Table, provide a meal for restaurant staff or make its way onto a chalkboard of nightly specials. I just wanted the tasty trash.
To my surprise, I found very little.
Rick Bolsom at Tin Angel said he doesn’t really have leftovers because the restaurant makes everything to order. Jeremy Barlow at Tayst said the same thing. Deb Paquette at Zola—an endlessly creative and resourceful chef—said she generated virtually zero excess food, but she kindly suggested I investigate the availability of roadkill.
In a moment of channeling chef Margot McCormack, I considered harvesting dandelion greens out of my own yard, but the thought of a ChemLawn vinaigrette waylaid my appetite long enough to make a few more phone calls. Jason Brumm at Radius10 offered leftover grits (oh, those grits!), and Barry Burnett at Produce Place scoured the bins of his Murphy Road store for some bruised apples, which, he said, would normally be scooped up by his employees, who make use of virtually all the damaged, bruised and wilted produce.
Juanita Lane at Dulce Desserts offered a days-old cake that “would stay moist through a nuclear holocaust, it had so much butter in it.” Patricia Paiva at Aurora Bakery on Nolensville Road ponied up a bunch of old pastries and a bag of pulverized pastry crumbs, which she uses to make bread pudding.
A well-timed call to F. Scott’s found chef Will Uhlhorn preparing to cater a dinner for 200, after which he expected to have some leftovers. I stopped by the restaurant the morning after to collect a plate of slightly rubbery blinis, tiny pancakes remaining from hors d’oeuvres with caviar the night before. Browsing through F. Scott’s luxurious larder, stocked with every species of leafy green and plump seasonal vegetable, I asked if there weren’t any past-their-prime veggies that I could have. “What about these?” I asked, pointing a to tiny bag of yellowing microgreens. I was welcome to them, he said, but they were inedible. To cushion the blow, he offered a jewel-colored bundle of house-cured salmon, which—against my own rules—I greedily snatched from its destiny as an amuse-bouche.
Sticking with the strategy of scavenging catered events, I called the folks at Whole Foods, who were hosting a series of public tours before the launch of the new Green Hills store. A generous manager said she would save some leftover cheese for me. Little did I expect her to hand over a half a wheel of Parmesan—about the size and value of my first car.
So there were the ingredients for my feast: grits, apples, blinis, gravlax, pastry crumbs, butter cake and 30 pounds of hard cheese.
With the addition of some eggs, cream, broth and a few other staples from my own larder, I could imagine a few enticing dishes at my green feast—grit cakes, for example. Bread pudding. Butter cake topped with apple compote. I could cannibalize my obsolete Halloween pumpkins for a soup and use some Parmesan in the stock. But there was no obvious main dish, no pièce de résistance, no “ta-da” course to parade Norman Rockwell-style across the dining room, as one might display a perfectly browned turkey.
Turkey. That’s what I needed.
Looking across the motley spoils of my foraging, I could think of only one stand-in for the bird....
Thirty pounds of Parmesan is certainly enough cheese to carve into the shape of a turkey. Hell, 30 pounds of Parmesan is enough to carve into a life-sized toddler. But the problem with Parm is that it crumbles, according to chef Michael Swann at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Did I have cheddar, he asked. (What? I’m lucky to have Parm, rotten apples and a bag of crumbs.)
In the end, Gaylord chefs John Griffin and Maura Valleriano offered to take a crack at it, and when I went back to the hotel’s kitchen to pick up my turkey Parm, they even threw in some leftover pasta, which I could toss with the F. Scott’s gravlax, roasted pumpkin seeds and some butter and cream.
So thanks to the generosity and good sportsmanship of the local food community, I ended up with about $500 worth of food that, for the most part, would otherwise have been tossed in the bin. Not to mention, I had a show-stopping turkey Parm and plenty of expensive aged cheese to distribute as holiday presents.
At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I couldn’t help but notice that among all that culinary largesse, I still had virtually no vegetables, no leafy greens whatsoever, and only a scintilla of protein. My holiday feast was a beige, carb-loaded extravaganza.
Parmesan turkeys and recycled pumpkins aside, lack of nutritional balance is a serious problem when it comes to rescuing and repurposing food. “It’s one of our biggest challenges,” says Jaynee Day, CEO and president of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. Second Harvest and its perishable food rescue program Nashville’s Table work with restaurants and food suppliers to redistribute surplus food to individuals and agencies that feed the hungry. But as my exercise illustrated, fresh meats and vegetables are hard to come by, and they’re more expensive than other items food banks can purchase, including peanut butter and pasta, so they remain scarce on the tables of hungry families.
Early next year, Second Harvest will launch a program to collect surplus food from 80 Kroger stores in the 46-county region, to supplement the food that Second Harvest purchases to meet the community’s needs. “We think it will help add more fruits and vegetables and dairy products,” Day says.Meanwhile, she emphasizes that hunger knows no season and families need healthy food all year long. To help provide food to Second Harvest, you can purchase canned and dry foods and contribute them to the Second Harvest collection bins in Kroger stores. Or visit secondharvestnashville.org to donate online or learn about volunteer opportunities.