Kathleen Purvis

Waste not, cook not: Food is too precious to throw away

We eat with our eyes, that’s true. But maybe we should think more seriously about learning to eat food that isn’t always pretty.

In a column she writes for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture outside New York City, food writer Jane Black shared a story this week about what happened when California peach farmer Mas Masumoto cut back on water for his orchard as part of drought tactics. Masumoto, world-famous for his peaches and for books like “Epitaph for a Peach,” found that with less water, he could grow intensively flavored peaches. They were just about 20 percent smaller.

The problem was, when the smaller peaches showed up in stores, customers wouldn’t buy them. They were used to big, softball-sized peaches.

It’s a struggle, this split between our ideal of fruits and vegetables worthy of a Cezanne painting and our understanding that tasty isn’t always camera-worthy. Back before local and sustainable became stock phrases, people used to joke about the gnarly apples in “hippie” stores that were grown without chemical fertilizers. Then we started forming relationships with farmers, and we got comfortable with the idea that the shiniest apple isn’t the one with the most flavor.

Still, it’s a message that’s still slow to get through. A few years ago, when a tomato company called Procacci Brothers produced a taste-driven tomato they called the UglyRipe, it ran into trouble. The Florida Tomato Committee wouldn’t allow it on the market, for fear it would hurt the state’s standard for aesthetically appealing tomatoes. Procacci Brothers went to court to get an exception that allows it to sell the UglyRipe outside the state.

In drought-plagued California, the source of so much of the nation’s fruit, activists are now campaigning on behalf of “ugly fruit.” We’re seeing more efforts like Charlotte-based Compass Group’s Imperfectly Delicious, to use culled fruit companies used to waste. In North Carolina, the Gleaning Network of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew sends volunteers into fields to pick the still-good produce that isn’t the uniform size wanted by retailers.

With an estimated 40 percent of our food ending up in landfills, states plagued by water shortages and farmable land dwindling, can we afford to be so picky?

Chefs are starting to think about waste, too. I was interviewing Stephen Satterfield, the chef at Miller Union in Atlanta and the author of the cookbook “Root to Leaf,” earlier this week when we wandered off into a discussion about finding ways to use the things we used to throw away. Chefs now turn collard stems into pickles and stripped corn cobs into broths.

“Any time you can use greens stems and radishes tops and whatever else that might be cast aside, it makes people think,” he said.

Instead of just being thrifty, some chefs see it as a responsibility, not only to reduce waste and save money, but to show the rest of us there’s a way to use everything if you get creative.

As Satterfield said: “A vegetable doesn’t have to be beautiful. Flavor should be the most important factor. Flavor and texture.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis