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That Food Was Rubbish [WFJ #70]
What you missed from the Great Big Green Week headline food event
On the evening of the 16th June, 47 people sat down in Rye bakery’s cafe on Whittox Lane to be served what two food artists simply called ‘rubbish’.
Just why people willingly paid and participated for such an experience perhaps deserves a study in itself. Scratch under the surface though, and maybe it’s not so surprising – Frome wants to be a resourceful town and, from a food point of view, that statement appears more than just anecdotal.
As I pointed out in the Frome Town Council-commissioned report in 2021, food waste is a topic of deep-seated anxiety for local people, but also a driver for how they’ve found ways to minimise it – The Garden Cafe and White Row farm shop, for instance, processes vegetables, looking a little weary, from their respective shops into salads and other deli items; Frome is home to the UK’s first Community Fridge, which saves supermarket produce from reaching the bin; while the town’s Compost Club developed into a model serving restaurants’ waste collection at one stage of their cycle, and home gardeners’ compost needs the other.
Despite this mobilisation against food waste, a lot still remains unexplored. Why are food systems so profligate in the first place? How many calories – and nutrients! – are lost in the process of processing food? And what untapped ingredients are abundant but have, for whatever reason, absolutely zero commercial value to conventional markets?
Last Friday, these were the sorts of questions our two food artists – Cherry Truluck from Frome and Annalee Levin from Huish Episcopi – sought to explore. Supported by the Frome Food Network, they did so through the story of six courses with elucidations in between, amounting to what you might call an ‘edible lecture’.
The menu focused on what’s found locally – or, more specifically, within the 30 miles between Frome and Huish Episcopi. And, much like local economies in general, the menu espoused no beginning and end per se, but rather that circular philosophies are an important part of mitigating waste. With this opening drink, a cocktail was made from vodka made from whey – the liquid usually considered a byproduct of the cheesemaking process.
The first course continued this theme, with an emphasis on perceptions of readiness – when is it right to consume a strawberry? Do herb shoots provide different flavours to their adult counterparts? Is there a way ullage – in this sense the yeasty dregs leftover from the brewing process – is still fit for human consumption?
Pervasive thought suggests pests and diseases unanimously subtract from a crop. But what if they actually added to it? In this course, the audience was shown that common undesirables, like snails and the fungal disease corn smut, could be part of the food chain (as they are already in other cultures) if we want them to.
Usually destined for the bin, skins are what we have left from wanting to make an ingredient more aesthetically or texturally appealing, or to extract the edible part from the supposedly not edible part. In retrospect (and in this case when pickled or fried), skins can actually contribute interesting flavours and textures of their own.
Heritage grains tend to put more energy into their root systems than what they fruit. This means they reach more nutrients in the soil, and are better at retaining water, effectively making them more nutrient-dense and resilient. But, like with the ones presented here, it also means their grains are much less plump than commercial varieties, and often too small to be processed – falling through the cracks, so to speak, of commercial equipment.
Likely because of the stigma attached to them, invasive and non-indigenous species are virtually non-existent within conventional or even ‘foraged’ food systems. Perhaps the common thought is we’d rather these species invading our lands don’t also invade our bodies, even though due to their classification there’s plenty ripe for picking.
Processing – whether in the factory or kitchen – produces undesired material usually chucked away. The chefs wanted this course to consolidate what they had left (e.g. potato flesh from the third course, whey from the first course, and extra pastry from the fifth course) into a dish of its own, while nodding to the idea that, if we are to embark on the mission to truly end food waste, food systems should be circular systems.
While a lot of this, I suppose, isn't too new a concept (the zero-waste restaurant Silo, for instance, came about in 2011), for a lot of people it certainly feels like it. Diners were having conversations about what we really mean by waste and what failures it suggests of a supposedly well-functioning food system. As well, of course, as whether they could get over the ick factor of necking a snail. One guest noted their “anger about the commodification of food”. Another said how the event “has encouraged me to up my intake of much less processed food.”
And the snails? “Amazing”, commented a diner. Even if some couldn’t stomach what was on their plate, it was about what effect it created: “Watching how other people reacted to trying new things,” said a guest, “and the conversation generated, was fantastic.”
The next iteration of This Food Is Rubbish will take place on the 20th July in Huish Episcopi as part of the Somerset Food Trail. Details: http://www.thisfoodisrubbish.net/elis-rose-and-crown/
This Food Is Rubbish was supported by the Frome Food Network, which is currently in residence with Future Shed. The residency’s Climate Action Fund, from The National Lottery, helped make this event possible.