She told me it would be dirty work. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t remember that, as though I believed I would just bake brownies every day. In my interview we talked about how much gleaning I would do and what exactly “gleaning” entailed: sorting through boxes of past-their-prime fruits and vegetables to see what we could use in our meals. I knew what I was getting myself into.
Somehow, though, this recognition does not make the smell of 300 pounds of half-rotten vegetables any easier to tolerate. My car smells like tomato wine, or it would if tomato wine existed. I roll my windows down, but it doesn’t help much; the 90-degree heat holds everything about the rot in my nose, my senses, my consciousness.
What am I doing? I ask myself on the drive back to the office. I know what led me here, at least; I wanted this job because I love food, and I hoped I could translate that love into meaningful work. I am quickly realizing that I actually just love fresh food, the kind I buy from Whole Foods or a farmer’s market, or at this point, any place where the food doesn’t have visible mold on it. I am also realizing that while I love making food for my friends—hosting elaborate dinner parties for a dozen people or so—planning and executing four meals a week for 75-100 people does not hold quite the same charm.
I pull up to the back door of our building. Reflection time is over. My coworkers come out to help me carry everything in from my car, and I sort, weigh, and record my haul. 32 pounds of peaches, 56 of corn, 47 of tomatoes, endless squash and zucchini. About half of everything I picked up is unusable, so into the compost bin it goes.
Ah, the compost bin. From far away it looks almost beautiful, a rainbow of refuse. The closer I get, though, the more I see the signs of spoilage: mold, flies, the occasional small animal casing the joint. I go out there two, three times every day, but I try my best to make those visits as quick as possible. Sometimes I hold my breath for the 15 seconds it takes to dump a boxful into the muck.
Of course, Mondays are the hardest. As soon as I’ve sorted and weighed what I’ve gleaned, recorded it, and composted the bad stuff, volunteers show up to help me process it all. The same group comes every Monday, 10 or 15 young adults with developmental disabilities. Working with them is not my strong point, to say the least. I’m terrible at it. I’m impatient, nervous, unsure of what they can and cannot do and how I should talk to them. I know they know I’m uncomfortable, but I can’t quite figure out how to hide it, or better yet, get over it.
Jack, a thin blonde guy with a crooked nose, has a habit of asking, “Why?” no matter what I tell him to do.
“Jack, take these tomatoes out of this bin and put them on this pallet.” “Why?” “Because they need to go on a pallet.”
“Jack, take the husks off of the corn, then put the husks in here and the corn in here.” “Why?” “Because people can eat the corn but they can’t eat the husks.”
“Jack, sort through these squash and put the hard ones here and the squishy ones there.” “Why?” “Because that’s what I need you to do right now!”
“So sorry,” Jack says, in a swift, instinctive way, a way that makes it clear he’s been apologizing his whole life.
What am I doing?
Almost as soon as Jack and his friends get here, though, they are gone. I walk into our kitchen and take my lunch out of the refrigerator, my lunch. It’s healthy (enough), fresh, and expensive: a beet and arugula salad with sheep’s milk feta, roasted pecans, and a white wine vinaigrette I made myself. Fresh crusty bread, toasted and slathered with butter. As much watermelon as I can fit into an old yogurt container. I eat like this every damn day. And I love it. Do I want everyone to be able to eat like this, to choose what they want, buy it, cook it, and eat it? Yes. Would I compromise my comfort to make that happen? It would appear not.
But I try not to think about this right now. I try to put everything out of my mind except my lunch; I lean against the counter and relax into my meal. This, I think—this is what I love about food.
Anne, my supervisor, comes in just as I swallow my last bite. We go over all of the salvageable produce I gleaned, divide it among industrial-sized blue bins, and store it wherever we can find fridge space. We talk about what we’ll do with all this stuff, all these quickly-decomposing-but-still-usable fruits and vegetables. We talk about potential recipes for the week, we fold aprons and hand towels, and we pull out meat from the freezer. I tell her about the kale salad I made for dinner last night, and she tells me about the lime, basil, and gin cocktail she mixed up on Saturday. When I talk to her, I love this job. In fact, when I talk to anyone I work with I love it. I’m not here for the rotten squash; I’m here hoping I can soak up some of their goodness. But I feel like a fraud.
I love working on Fridays. Normally I don’t come in; Anne usually works alone to plan next week’s meals. But this week—my last week—she’s on vacation, so I’m filling in for her. I chat with the Friday morning cooks, check out the contents of the freezer and the pantry, and piece together menus based on what we have in stock. It’s like a word problem: you have 33 pounds of chicken, 27 pounds of ground beef, 15 pounds of rice, and 3 bins of vegetables. How many people can you feed?
I figure it out, come up with recipes, and email Anne:
Hello! I've outlined some possible menus for next week. I'm not sure what days we have dessert donated, but since we have so many peaches and bananas in the freezer I thought it would make sense to use them. As far as meat goes, we have a lot of chicken and smaller amounts of ground meat, beef, and bacon. I took out the chicken and ground meat so that should be ready to go. We also still have a lot of produce in the fridge, mostly peppers and squash/zucchini (some of which is already chopped), plus tomatoes and potatoes. Here’s what I came up with:
Parmesan breaded chicken tenders
Chili mac with cheddar, tomatoes, and hot peppers
Black beans and rice with peppers (hot/sweet) and onions (and bacon?)
Squash and zucchini with cumin and chili powder
Beef stew with lots of summer veggies, over rice
Banana cake with chocolate/cinnamon chips
See you soon (very soon, I hope)!
I hit send. Why does this list of simple meals feel so important to me? It’s not exactly a stroke of culinary genius to suggest that we use beef to make beef stew. My pride in this work makes me feel silly for a moment, like I’m six years old again and proud of myself for tying my shoes. Everyone else learned that two years ago? Oh.
Anyway, I don’t dwell on it because it’s time for me to go. Or almost anyway—one more trip to the compost bin. A local farmer dropped an unexpected donation at our doorstep last night, and some of the vegetables will not last until Tuesday. The recent heat wave hasn’t made the task of composting any more appealing, but perhaps because it’s my last week, my last day, I almost feel a premature nostalgia for this act. I even start to think that maybe gleaning wasn’t so bad. I know I’m idealizing, but I want to hold onto everything about this summer as long as I can.
I stand outside for a moment, sweating, staring at the compost. Beauty and color and ripeness—it is all slowly dying, decaying into dirt. And for what? To become the ground we walk on, the soil we grow in. I couldn’t do it, I think. These inanimate objects have me beat. But then I realize that like it or not, I am doing it. We’re all doing it—slipping away, day by day, piece by piece, often quite imperceptibly. But does our slow death birth any new life? Do we make our death worth it? I start to think I could learn something from this compost.
Or maybe it’s just compost.
Then again, maybe so are we.