Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Part One: Getting to know Susanne
Food waste! It was not always an issue. As a matter of fact, we used to be quite scrappy until around the middle of last century. And then the Green Revolution, a massive increase in the production of grains with the help of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and high-yield crops, and to the detriment of the environment, happened in the 1950s. Our attitude to food changed fundamentally with it.
Along the way we lost the connection to the source of our food (and nature ultimately), we lost the connection to how the food that ends up on a supermarket shelf is actually made, and for a long time we didn’t care because we weren’t really aware. So, no blame here. It is what it is, and we need to move on from here. Meanwhile, we are also becoming acutely aware that the earth is warming, and that food production is a main contributor. Hence, each one of us has to become part of the solution. Granted, food waste occurs through every part of the food chain, from farm to landfill, but household food waste is the largest contributor, accounting for up to 43% of food waste. It is time we become aware what we can do to reduce food waste at home, if for no other reason than to realize the impact on your wallet.
Food awareness in this country began right around the time I arrived over here in 1982. The early eighties gradually opened up to a world of uncomfortable truths about factory farms, pesticides, manufactured foods with little resemblance to what nature produced, and now food waste. These were all brought on by the desire for convenience, the relentless push for profit, and the pressures of feeding a growing population, which, ironically enough, skyrocketed as a result of the Green Revolution. Recent documentaries around food waste, such as “Wasted,” “Just Eat It,” or “Dive,” the New York City initiative City Harvest that redistributes leftover restaurant food to people in need, chef Dan Barber’s food waste awareness dinners, or more recently Misfits Market, the organization that collects and redistributes unwanted but consumable produce and food, all put food waste on our collective horizon. This is not a trend, it’s change that’s already happening!
Travelling along our cultural food journey of the past seventy years, from food scrappiness to food waste and now back, also parallels my own growing awareness and education around food, nutrition, and agriculture. I am neither vegan, nor vegetarian, in case you were wondering where this was headed, but a food loving omnivore who is curious about almost anything that crosses my plate and palate. Born into a postwar Germany whose food culture was destroyed by two world wars, my family moved to France when I was seven, and later to Belgium, the food cultures that formed and informed me. My parents’ embrace of the French passion for food led me to read cookbooks at night under the covers, accompany my mom shopping on market days in our Paris neighborhood, and travel with my family through France, Spain and Italy chasing those good little restaurants (“un bon petit restaurant”), humble perhaps, le patron in the kitchen, la patronne in the front of the house, or vice versa, but always offering excellent local food and wine. In France, food is sacred, and nothing gets wasted, at least not when I grew up - things have changed there, too. You ate nose-to-tail, as a new movement over here is called that encourages eating all parts of an animal, and you chopped your mushroom and parsley stems to use in a filling.
But even before moving to France, I remember seeing pigs’ ears at our German butcher shop, buying smoked pigs’ tail for pea soup, and eating blood sausage, liver and kidney regularly. I also remember my mom being floored when she saw the shopkeeper in the little town of North Rhein-Westphalia where we lived for a few years, discard the Kohlrabi greens in a bin behind the cash register and handing her the naked roots. In disbelief, she asked for the discarded greens and took them home to cook. Sweetbreads (pancreas in plain English) and other French delicacies like calf kidneys in mustard sauce served with thin crunchy French fries, or perhaps tourteau, that big brown crab eaten cold with homemade mayonnaise and all its innards, not just the claws, was how we ate when we went to a restaurant. Yet, what in the eyes of Americans might be perceived as exoticism, was only a prelude to what my husband and I would encounter in Hong Kong, where we spent a few years in our late twenties, and where the offerings were far more exotic, from ducks’ tongues and jelly fish, to sharkfin soup and chicken feet, in addition to all sorts of foreign looking tropical fruit and tons of unknown greens, the latter always part of each Cantonese meal.
The French revere and savor their food, and spending three or four hours over a multi-course meal with friends and family, or on business affairs, is entertainment, is life, is connection, is sensory experience, is culture and enjoyment. No football needed on television, the food and company are the entertainment. Our kids used to become impatient when my husband and I would walk up and down some Main Street looking for a restaurant, examining the menus, and taking our time pondering which experience we might enjoy most that day. Food was never just about fuel for me, food was always about so much more.
I arrived in this country in 1982, just as things started to shift away from the Green Revolution mentality, and food awareness began to sweep over the country from the West Coast and Alice Waters’ famous Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse, to the East Coast, and to the rest of the country in recent years. The wine culture had barely begun when I arrived, farmers’ markets were not yet a thing, and proper crusty bread was nowhere to be found. Yet, I remember jumping for joy and surprise when I found cheap monk fish at my Cambridge supermarket fish counter for $1.50/lb (that is $4.22 in today’s dollars!), so cheap because it was unknown to most and likely a bycatch. You’d be hard pressed to find monkfish for less than $15 nowadays. How things have changed!
You can tell from my memories that a lot of foods revolved around animal protein then. That too, just like in this country, has changed in Europe, and my food awareness, has evolved with the times and gone through several periods. In the 1980s, still so much under the influence of where I came from, and still learning to cook, I emulated the ideas I brought with me, serving, as I recall, roasted bacon wrapped quail cooked up in our tiny closet sized kitchen in the West Village, to our unsuspecting group of twenty-something friends, who were surprised to say the least. My husband, always up for a good food adventure, brought home a small sand shark from the Union Square Market one Saturday morning in the mid-eighties when we were supposed to leave for the weekend. Surprised, yes, but quick to embrace a culinary challenge, I cut it up into portion sizes and froze it for later use. And softshell crabs were a thing in the New York City of the late eighties, expensive then, and much bigger in my memory than the little ones we buy now as a special early summer treat.
My first big shift in food awareness happened when I had my babies. In hindsight, my teenage glibness, that the pesticide residue on the unwashed plum from the fruit basket, or the unwashed lettuce leaves I put on my sandwich wouldn’t affect my health, tells me how unaware we all were then. But now I had babies whose health was in my hands! Over several years I shifted gradually to more healthfully grown foods as I learned about industrial agriculture, pesticides, additives, shelf-life, sugar and all that made food convenient, profitable, shelf stable, abundant, cheap, and ultimately unhealthful.
The second big shift came along with my meat education. As I learned about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) and feedlots, the horrors of “meat production,” added growth hormones and antibiotics, grassfed versus cornfed meat, advertised versus actual protein needs and that you can also get protein from plants, and that the traditional center piece of dinner, the piece of meat around which the “sides” were served, was not a set-in-concrete must. Now that we were a family, I also had a food budget. Muscle meat (steaks, filets, chicken breast, chops), I learned, was expensive, and it was not as easy to find the “lesser” meats I was used to from Europe, the kidneys and livers, soup bones and pigs’ tails. Hence, plant-based foods became more prominent in my home cooking, including pasta, pizza (albeit homemade), grains and rice.
The third big shift in my food awareness and home cooking got jump started when our daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 14, and simple carbohydrates in the form of starches, sugar, and grains entered my awareness in a big way. This next shift got me away from the foods that cause so many of us to gain weight, and I now learned how to make vegetables shine through interesting combinations, with spices and herbs, and through all sorts of ethnic preparations.
Meanwhile, I had been working on my master’s degree, researching how we can interact with nature, grow our food, and feed and heal ourselves more holistically and sustainably. My perspective around food expanded, although I had always been cooking. As kids and teens my sister and I did the baking since my mom didn’t enjoy this more precise art of food preparation. The first time I cooked in a major way was when my mom went away to Italy for a month-long language immersion stay and my dad declared me in charge of cooking for him and my sister, an appetizer and a main course to be made every night. I was fourteen and I followed recipes, but that’s what you do until it becomes natural. Much later in life, after my first book came out, I offered cooking classes around the subjects of healthy breakfasts (beyond cereal and sweet stuff), stretching your food dollars and countering food waste, quick healthy and tasty weeknight dinners, food enjoyment, and shopping skills.
But let’s get back to your kitchen and becoming aware of food waste on a very small scale, to see where you can make a difference in habits. Reverence for the preciousness of food, and acceptance that better means pricier, is perhaps the first step in shifting our attitude. Nobody throws a diamond ring down the toilet. Yet food waste is rampant. As a culture, we simply have come to value food less. When that shifts, when we value our precious food more, we will use it more diligently, and we won’t mind paying more for intrinsic quality. Here’s how, in three parts, with suggestions for scrappier us of produce, animal protein, and groceries.
To learn more about Susanne, please visit her website at www.susannemeyerfitzsimmons.com.