Today, a meat locker has donated 200 pounds of spicy Italian sausages. They're sitting on the kitchen counter piled high in big steel tubs. The sheer quantity of the food initially overwhelms me. In the experience of the unexpected that comes with most surprise gifts, I feel a sudden creative inspiration. Staying with that feeling, I move to the back storeroom for a quick inventory of what's on hand. The Kitchen's van has arrived with its first pickup from the local supermarkets. The goods are unloaded and brought in for inspection. This is food that's been intercepted on its way to the dumpster, and it requires a quick screening-separating ripe from rotting, safe from soured, fresh from stale-and a discriminating nose.
This wasn't something I had when I first started at the Kitchen. The sight of dumpster-bound food offended my sensibilities. I had a hard time looking at it and cooking with it, let alone smelling it for freshness. The same was true of my initial encounters with the Kitchen's customers. Many were unclean, unshaven, sniffling with chronic colds, twisted with physical or mental disabilities, making threatening glances, smelling of alcohol. Being in their presence was uncomfortable. What did I have to offer them? Where could I begin to help?
Today's bounty includes a case of cottage cheese one day past its expiration date, a variety of cakes, three cases of green beans still firm and crunchy, two cases of mushrooms, cartons of eggs, and a few cases of yogurt. I move into the pantry and survey the canned goods, spices, oils, vinegars, and grains provided by the local food bank. Then I begin the meal planning. It's a quick affair, entirely dependent on what's available. Meal ideas that require missing ingredients must be adapted for ready substitutes or swiftly abandoned.
As I go about my work I often recall something Ed Brown shared in his cooking class about respecting the unimportant and the forgotten. It was a lesson passed on from his teacher, Suzuki Roshi, who noted that one should give equal importance to all. When you don't, you tend to judge something that's left behind in the bowl as less important.
I call it the lesson of leftovers.