Making Supper Safe

Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety

Making Supper Safe
Rodale Books (June 7, 2011)

“I couldn’t put this book down. Read this before your next bite!” – Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms

The recent spate of large-scale food borne illness outbreaks have stoked fears about the safety of our nation’s food supply and provoked an historic political reaction.

But what do we really have to fear? In Making Supper Safe, Ben explores past, present, and likely future of our nation’s response to pathogenic bacteria in our food, and how it impacts both our health and our right to consume the foods of our choosing. He argues that the greatest danger in our food is not the acute illness caused by bacterial contamination, but rather the systemic arrangements that have consolidated our food supply and hidden its inner workings from view. And he considers the crucial interplay between bacteria and the human body, a field that is exploding with new research and insight. Best of all, he goes dumpster diving. Twice.

“A wake-up call for every American… You owe it to yourself and your family to read this book.” – Rowan Jacobsen, author of Fruitless Fall and American Terroir

Read a Q & A with Ben Hewitt about Making Supper Safe.

An Excerpt from Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety

“What’s that?”

Edward leaned forward, peering through the windshield. It was night and a searing cold had settled over the landscape. A high wind had swept snow across the roads, where it turned to ice and upended numerous cars along Vermont’s Interstate 89. Everything looked lunar and foreboding. Already, barely 20 minutes into our drive, we had passed a Toyota truck lying on its side, illuminated by the flashing lights of emergency rescue vehicles. A few miles later, we passed an overturned sedan, its crumpled nose pressed against the ice-rimed surface of a rock face. I thought I saw one of its wheels still spinning; the front passenger door hung open, but the interior of the car was dark and I could not see if it was still occupied. This was on the other side of the highway median, so we did not stop.

I followed Edward’s gaze. Ahead of us, illuminated by the wash of our headlights, a deer lay at the base of a guardrail. Edward turned to me, and although I did not know him well, I knew him well enough that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking: Food.

The car shimmied on the ice as we came to a stop at the highway’s edge. We stepped into the glacial air, our breath pluming into the dark. A row of cars passed, tires buzzing on the icy tarmac. I bent over the deer and tucked an ungloved hand into the fold of fur where leg met body. Still warm. This was a fresh kill, a coveted prize. We grabbed legs, Edward at the front and me at the rear, and hoisted the deer into the back of my car where it lay atop a pair of jumper cables and a rusty tire iron. “What a blessing,” Edward said as we slipped back into the car and its welcome cocoon of warmth. I slid the shifter into gear and we pulled onto the highway.

We had our meat. It was time to find some cheese.

I suppose it’s simplest to say that Edward Gunny is a dumpster diver, although it’s probably not fair to define a man according solely to his predilection for digging through trash in search of his supper. Still, it’s worth noting that Gunny, a lean-framed 28-year old of middling height, sources at least one third of his calories from the garbage, and has been doing so for nearly a decade. Given that history, and given that I’ve personally observed the man waist deep in garbage in pursuit of his nourishment, I don’t feel too badly calling him a dumpster diver.

When I first learned of Gunny’s habit, I was quick to assume it meant that he ate poorly. I imagined dented cans of soup, spore-dotted loaves of bread, and the picked-over remnants of Big Macs. But he was keen to correct me and when I asked, eager to demonstrate his prowess. “Sure, I’ll take you out,” he said, and proceeded to reel off a list of his finest scores, like a waiter reciting the day’s specials. Aged goat cheese and specialty chocolates. Strawberries, fresh and frozen. Wine (“and not the cheap stuff,” he assured me). Boxes upon boxes of Alaskan salmon fillets, admittedly a little suspect at the edges, but nothing a sharp knife and a generous ration of spices couldn’t take care of.

Why, just two weeks prior to our outing, he’d snagged more than 50-pounds of imported brie from a dumpster in Burlington. For the Christmas holiday, Edward had hauled a few pounds of the stash to his family’s home in southern New Hampshire, which he then proceeded to bake in his mother’s oven and serve to the assembled guests. “Where did you get this brie? It’s delicious,” asked his aunt, as she slid another spoonful of gooey-warm cheese between her lips. Not wanting to diminish her obvious pleasure, and yet not able to bring himself to tell an outright lie, for this is the sort of fellow he is, Edward took the middle path: “Oh, it’s from a store I go to all the time.”

So we embarked on that bitter December night in search of the good stuff. It was only days past Christmas, and we considered the ways in which this might work to our advantage. “They’ll probably be tossing extra holiday inventory,” I offered. Edward nodded, then added: “Or maybe because they were closed for a few days, a bunch of stuff went bad.” I nodded. “Or maybe,” I noted sagely, “with the economy so bad, they made a lot of extra inventory and had to get rid of it.” This was basically a repeat of my first point, but Edward didn’t seem to notice or, if he did, was too kind to mention it.

I picked him up at the house he rents for $400 with his friend David, a builder of strawbale homes who sports a gold-capped front tooth and spends his spare hours refining his musculature with a kettlebell, a simple contraption that consists of a 35-pound steel ball with a handle. “I’ll show you a few moves,” he said, when Edward took a phone call.

The house was in a decorated in a style I’ll call “rural bachelor rustic,” which basically means that David and Edward live as if they occupy a parallel universe, where everything is oriented around an old woodstove and women and toilet bowl cleaner do not play a part. To contain heat, the upstairs had been closed off, leaving the single, first story room to serve as bedroom, living room, and kitchen for both Edward and David. Beds were tucked into opposite corners; a large woodstove was central to the space, with a sorry looking couch pulled close. Above the stove, a rack of deer antlers had been mounted on a post; wool socks with blown out heels hung from its points. The wood floor around the stove was pockmarked with charred burns from errant embers. I looked for a fire extinguisher, did not find one, and made studious note of the nearest exit. A circular table held a can of whipped cream (dumpster’d), a log of butter (dumpster’d), a container of sour cream (dumpster’d), and a jar of kimchi, a fermented vegetable medley of Korean origin. David had made it and he offered me a bite. Unable to source a clean utensil, and finding the dirty ones too dirty to risk, I used the tip of my pocketknife to spear a chunk of cabbage. It was insanely good. I speared another chunk, then rinsed my knife under a kitchen sink faucet that consisted of two garden hose shut-offs. It was not hard to imagine Edward and David growing old in this space, spending their days feeding the woodstove, padding around in soiled long johns, and emitting voluminous kimchi farts.

As Edward finished his call, and immediately after I completed a wobbly set of kettlebell deep knee bends, David delivered a quick primer in dumpster diving philosophy. “There is one question the dumpster diver seeks to answer,” he told me, his gold tooth gleaming in the light from a bare bulb, which was speckled with the carcasses of innumerable house flies. “And that is ‘why was this thrown away?’”

I knew immediately that David wasn’t asking the question to express his concern over the food’s edibility but rather in the context of his distaste for capitalism and the profligate waste it often engenders. Already, I’d come to understand that amongst Edward and his dumpster diving cohorts, rage against the capitalist machine is a defining motivation. This could be seen as biting the hand that feeds, for if it weren’t for free market capitalism and the inevitable waste it generates, the quantity of well-stocked dumpsters would likely decline. “It’s important to not get so attached that we perpetuate the system,” explained Edward, when I pointed this out. “Being bummed out that there aren’t more dumpsters isn’t part of the equation.”

One might assume, as I had, that unblemished food would be the dumpster diver’s Holy Grail. But as we embarked on our quest, weaving cautiously through the snow-slick turns on the secondary roads that led to the highway, Edward expounded on the benefits of food with obvious flaws. “It’s nice to know why they threw it away. If it’s got mold, or the package is ripped, or it’s physically deformed in some way, you know what’s going on with it.” Another incongruity: The more perishable a product, the more Edward trusts its integrity. “The thing about meat and dairy is it gets thrown out real quick. They don’t take any chances with that stuff.” To be honest, this comment threw me a bit, and it was the first time I seriously considered the wisdom of Edward’s food sourcing habits. I mean, I was down with the whole anti-capitalist-waste-stream-diversion gig. Totally. But eating meat someone had discarded for reasons I could only guess at? Maybe I’m showing my age here, but that sounds kind of… I don’t know… risky?

Fortunately, tonight we were after cheese, a favorite of Edward’s in part because the region is lousy with artisanal cheese makers and in part because it’s a food that’s essentially built on fungi. This makes it susceptible to superficial mold that ruins its salability, but is basically harmless and particularly easy to remove. That, and it tastes good, which might sound sort of banal and obvious, but is actually really, really important, because dumpster diving tends to result in large stores of a singular food. Serious divers are born with the will (or have cultivated the skill; I’m not sure which) to eat the same thing day-in, day-out until they’ve exhausted the score and can move onto the next. It is an absolute anathema to throw away food you’ve rescued from the garbage, and divers will go to great lengths to distribute anything they can’t personally consume before it goes bad. Or, perhaps more accurately, badder.

Turns out, Edward has gotten sick from dumpster food. Once. In ten years of committed diving. He has not forgotten the details because the details are not forgettable. “I was out late, partying a little bit, and we were just walking around town, having fun. And I dipped into the trash and there was a half-gallon jug of Fresh Samantha Mango Montage.” He paused, as if savoring the memory of the find. Or maybe he was recalling the horrors of what followed. “Suddenly, I was so, so thirsty. I hadn’t known I was so thirsty. I hadn’t known it was possible to be so thirsty.” It sounded to me as if Edward was rather drunk, but I kept my mouth shut.

Intoxicated or not, Edward did exactly what you’d expect a parched dumpster diver to do upon finding a half-gallon jug of juice in the garbage: He cracked the cap and put back a solid, uninterrupted quart of Mango Montage. Glug, glug, glug. I’ll spare you the rest of the particulars, as I wish Edward had spared me, and simply say this: It didn’t stay put back for long.

The Fresh Samantha incident stuck with me throughout the night, as Edward and I traveled a circuit of his favorite trash receptacles. At Ye Olde Cheese Worx (business names have been changed to protect future accessibility), I watched as in one sinuous, almost athletic motion that carried the memory of thousands of such motions over the years, Edward launched himself into the open maw of a dumpster and disappeared from view. I cast a furtive glace into the shadows and clambered in after him. We closed the lid over us and flicked on our headlamps.

Dumpsters rarely give up their secrets easily. Oh sure, occasionally you’ll have the good fortune to find a wheel of cheese or case of wine perched atop the bags below. More typically, the riches are entombed within the confines of black plastic, where they mingle with non-edibles. Liberating them requires pawing through large quantities of garden-variety trash: Paper and plastic and packaging. We tend to think of garbage as being sort of gross, but most of it is just cast-off bits of items we handle every day. Sifting through it isn’t exactly fun, but from a strictly subjective view of the labor and skill involved, there’s nothing particularly challenging about it.

And yet it was clear from observing Edward that truly successful divers have a metaphysical relationship with garbage, a sort of sixth sense for the presence of high-end loot. In the first bag I tore into, I found a box of out-dated rice cereal; Edward’s first bag contained numerous packages of cheese. I examined one under the glare of my headlamp: $18 per pound. In bag number two, I found dozens of jars of baby food; even among our most frugal friends, I couldn’t think of a single one that would feed dumpster’d food to their infant child, so I let the jars tumble to the oozy floor. Edward’s second bag was home to three unopened packages of chocolate Newman-O’s, the organic Oreo cookie knock-off named after the late actor.

We paused for a snack, and for a brief, almost hallucinatory moment, I had a vision of us as two overgrown mice, gnawing at the discarded crumbs of a great feast. The snacking seemed to put Edward in a reflective mood. “We live in such a strange moment in history,” he said, bending to sniff a thick wedge of cheese. “When else would such exquisite food end up in the trash?” He nodded his approval of the cheese, and appropriated a slice to the top of a cracker. His mouth opened, the cracker was inserted, and in an instant, the food was gone.

It took us about 20 minutes to fully exploit the dumpster’s potential. Our cardboard box, procured from the recycling container immediately to the left of the dumpster, was overflowing. There were multiple pounds of cheese, perhaps ten or more. There were the three boxes of Newman-O’s (actually, there was a little less, owing to my fondness for cream-filled confections). There was a box of organic crackers and a bag of gingersnaps. A few cans of whole-grain Spaghetti-O knock-offs. We’d found quart containers of soy milk, tempting if only because it would have loosened the crumbs wedged between my teeth. But something told me to stay away from it, and I listened. Incongruously, we’d found three pairs of shoes in excellent condition. They were all size 12, which just happened to be the size worn by both Edward and myself. Between the soymilk vibes and the delightful coincidence of the shoe sizes, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps I’d tapped into the energy that seemed to flow between Gunny and the garbage.

At our next stop, The Center for Aged Fruits and Vegetables, we discovered dozens of containers of organic strawberries, frozen into little red rocks. Did they practically throw themselves into the back of my car? They did indeed, as did a stash Italian Vinaigrette, hundreds of servings in convenient single-serving packets. “I love condiments,” Edward told me unnecessarily, after wedging four boxes of salad dressing between the deer and the dairy.

By midnight, the shocks in the back of my Subaru had become compressed and useless; with every pothole, an alarming thump resonated from under the car. With the deer and the cheese and the butter and the dressing (the strawberries weighed hardly anything), our haul had to be pushing 300-pounds. The sky had cleared, and the temperature had plummeted even further. It was well below zero, and I felt suddenly exhausted and vulnerable in a way that’s unique to being out in weather that can kill you in minutes. Even with the benefit of heavily insulated work gloves, my fingers burned, except for the tip of the middle left, which had surrendered all sensation. Clearly, it was time to go home.

But first, I needed another snack. Being the snacking sort, I’d anticipated this moment, and had cleverly perched a chunk of cheese atop the defroster vent, so that at least its edges might soften a bit. I reached for it now, and peeled back the plastic wrapping with my wooden fingers, inhaling the pungent aroma of sharp cheddar. It smelled just fine, which is to say, it smelled funky, but no funkier than the cheese I regularly purchase for upwards of $15 per pound at the local health food store. Still, the cheese seemed to me more risky than the cookies, which had been factory sealed and clearly stamped with an expiration date that was just enough past due to legitimize their inclusion in the garbage, but not so much past due as to arouse suspicion.

In the glow of the dash, I searched for visible mold. I couldn’t find any, but then again, my Subaru is 15 years-old, and a handful of burned out dash lights is only a fraction of the toll those years have extracted. I wondered if perhaps I should wait until I got home, where I could examine the cheese under the glare of an 80-watt bulb. But I was suddenly ravenous, amazingly, profoundly hungry. I hadn’t known it was even possible to be so hungry.

“What do you think?” I asked Edward. “Is it safe?” I held the cheese in my right hand and steered the car with my left. The skeletal outlines of leafless trees rushed by my window.

Edward laughed, and frankly I couldn’t be sure if he was laughing at my question because he assumed it was sincere (it was), or because he assumed it was joke, or if he was simply finding mirth in the delightful absurdity of the whole scene: Two men careening through a late winter’s night, their car laden with enough artisanal food to feed them for a month. We had hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of food in our possession, and it had cost us nothing more than a gallon or two of gas, a few hours missed sleep, and the ability to feel things with the tip of one finger.

I figured that if I waited a minute, Edward would stop laughing and answer my question. But he didn’t, and I was hungry.

So I shrugged my shoulders. And took a bite.

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