I was saving this one for the magazine, but it's a bit directionless now, so here we go.
My first encounter with dumpster diving was at the age of 18 while bumming around in Amsterdam. After staying in hostels for the first few weeks of my European journey, I was inspired by my new friend Jordan to attempt surviving by alternative means. Jordan had spent the last five years or so as a genuine hobo, he’d travelled all over the States, the Americas and Europe. He was completely self sufficient, even carrying a top of the line digital camera everywhere he went. I was sitting on top of a half pipe with some british dudes when Jordan walked by. I commented on the violin case he’d painted bones on and we were pals from there on in. We cruised around Amsterdam without a care in the world, going on new adventures everyday. In order to save money, we’d hang around populated areas and would always find plenty of food in a matter of minutes. I recall a certain Chinese food stand that had those white buckets which no one ever finished. It was a plethora of greasy treats and surprises that spring of 2005. I gained a new perspective on the value of food and the reality of consumer culture. I got plenty of filthy looks when I pulled clean and sealed food from the garbage, but those looks didn’t affect me, I had friends. When Jordan and I parted ways, I was somewhat reluctant to display my garbage eating ways. I wanted to meet new people and first impression are utterly important.
Coming back to Canada, I usually had cash and except for broken bikes and tossed out treasures, I felt no strong desire to dumpster dive. This all changed when I landed in Parksville BC. I had just completed a cross country tour and had begun my next phase of “Being in BC without a plan”. I had met a hillbilly band en-route to a concert, played with them that night and they asked me to join. Moving into their studio, things were moving along quite well. Concerts were always on the weekends so I was free to explore the cute little resort/retirement town. I became acquainted with the youth after a day and found a tight nit but expansive social circle. They all revolved around a big apartment found in the middle of town above a sporting goods store. Many of them were musicians, they loved longboarding and were infatuated with the fantasy role playing game of “Magic”.
A few members of the circle of friends had a nightly routine at 10:30 pm. That was when the last janitor left the local grocery store and the dumpsters around back were free to be pillaged. They would bring a light and take ever present garbage bag of bread that was thrown out every night, sometimes every second night. One would hold open the lid while the other would reach inside and grab the bounty. Cracking open the bag back at the pad, muffins, bagels, croissants and all sorts of loaves were found inside and devoured.
After the first few trips with them, I realized this process would have to be maximalized.
Much like winter biking, attire and tools are key to any successful dumpster diving expedition. I donned old jeans tucked into high laced, light boots. My top half consisted of a long sleeve shirt tucked into work gloves, a head mounted flashlight and an old ball cap. The uniform was lucky and every night I scored big.
As 10:30 rolled around we would stuff our pockets with cloth grocery bags and take off on our bikes and long boards. The times I went by myself made me feel like a super hero, (dumpsterman, or something), but it’s quicker and easier in a team. I would hum the theme to mission impossible as pried open the lid and crept my way in. Turning the light on, there would always be a new layer of veggies ready to be plucked. Completely unnoticeable from the outside, I would fill bag after bag, taking care to take the food that lay away from the raw meet. When a new bag was full, I’d chirp to my friends who lay in hiding, waiting to grab the overflowing bags. After recovering all the firm produce, our caravan would return to the apartment, always stoked. On the short trips back we always spoke of the elation we felt. We knew that everyday, in every grocery store around the world, mountains of edible, nutritious food was being condemned to landfills. Those avocados and oranges had travelled thousands of miles, only to be tossed in the trash. We were liberators.
At home I envisioned assembly lines of washing, drying then storing the food. In reality I did most of that myself. That refrigerator was filled up and emptied on every few days. The next step was the cooking. I worked in restaurants for years for the purpose of learning how to prepare food. Now I got to use my skills in more rewarding and fulfilling manner.
This method of cooking was like none that I’d ever experienced. It was entirely experimental, being subjected to a variety of new ingredients every day. We routinely had piles of new food, my goal was to quickly transform it into a form which was delectable to a gang of hungry teenagers. Turns out it wasn’t so hard. Once I found a good formula, my basic approach altered little from day to day, but since the ingredients always changed, the dishes were constantly reinvented, seeming new and different.
One ingredient that’s utterly important yet difficult to dumpster is beans. They offer protein which is essential to any diet and are delicious. Good beans are best found at health food stores, more on that later.
The key to cooking a lot of food quickly is timing and being good with a knife. Most people don’t know how to hold a kitchen knife in properly. Start by holding the knife how you think you should, by the handle, then slide your hand up, so you can pinch the blade between your thumb a index finger. This will offer you much more control and leverage. Wrap some masking tape around the lowest fleshy part of your finger and it will hurt less with repetitive use. Now that you know how to use a knife, it’s food time.
These are my recommendations to start experimenting with the preparation of dumpster food. To maximize your time, cook as much food as you can at once, then freeze it or give it away as a form of good Karma. In terms of Fridges and Microwaves, it’s not a matter of finding, more hauling them home instead of tripping on one left in the trash. These allow you to cook in volume, that’s the way food was traditionally made and how corporations do it. If you freeze as you go, eventually this offers a collections of various batches you’ve made.
At this stage, check out online recipes, searching by ingredient, this will inspire you, but don’t let it limit you. Achieving a specific taste is not our aim here, we’re making tasty nutrients. When you’re good to go, it’s important to be cutting and cooking at the same time. The way to do this is by mentally organizing and then cutting your ingredients in other of density. Potatoes, carrots all the way to celery. The exception in this case is onions and garlic, toss them in early in order to flavor the dense food. Big chunks of these acidy bulbs go further. You’ll always have a steady supply of those two and they react differently with everything. Choose pots or pans which accommodate all the vegetables, packaged or fresh meat, noodles, fish, noodles or anything else cookable. Throw in a bit of water and some oil if you have it and turn in onto fifty to 65 percent heat. When you get comfortable with cooking multiple pots at once, high heat is best. Start with the onions and garlic, use goggles.
As soon as the onions and garlic go in, start to chop the dense stuff. As it starts to sizzle, start cutting and tossing in. Time spent cooking G and O will affect the rest of the stew, experiment. Be careful to be as tidy as possible and clean up as you go. Most skin on veggies is edible and toss everything you don’t use into a bucket for composting. DIY composting is can be creative and fun. Use a bucket that hangs from a balcony, toss frequently and you’ll have great dirt to start your own rooftop or windowsill vegetable garden.
Keep cutting, tossing in a stirring. Soon you’ll have a big pot full of veggies and meat (if it was sealed or fresh when you found it) cooking away. It might taste bland so that’s where spices come in. From time to time you’ll find them in the dry goods section of grocery store dumpsters, a more reliable way to secure them is at health food stores. Most towns have one and often they are staffed with progressively minded people. GET BEANS HERE, protein is utterly important for your health. Use your people skills to make friends with the staff and/or management. Explain the fact that you’re feeding a number of poor kids or artists and especially be willing to trade time, art or money. You never know, they might give the expired food right there and then. More on the treatment of the people and dumpster diving 2.0 later. Steal from the big box chain grocery stores but not the independent ones. A few arrests never hurt anyone, especially if you’re an aspiring activist figure or badass musician. There’s a lot of leeway and sympathy for polite, non-violent garbage diggers.
At this point, you’ve gone through the lastAdd spices to taste, keep tasting it and changing it as you go. Spices are strongest when added late. Try not to over cook, as that will zap the flavor. Cut up some bread on the side and voi la. Before serving, (this part sucks) but make sure to assign cleaning duties. I’ve single handedly cooked for fifteen people, without having a soul offer cleaning duties. One way to make this easier is to play the change and bottle game. Everyone who’s eating dump the change in the pockets into a jar, spin the bottle, who every it lands on get’s paid to do the dishes. Just make damn sure that someone is responsible before everyone starts eating.
I find the stew to be a quick and easy way to feed a lot of people. Roasts are great to make as well, but everything needs to be cut up before hand. Another option is the food processor. You can halve your carrots and they’ll be ready for a blades attached to a good motor. Don’t worry about skin, the key is to get the food in a size that makes it faster.
Raw dumpster diving is something that has fascinated me but I haven’t attempted it beyond the sealed off bread bag. Raw food offers more nutrients but if it’s been near rotting food, cooking it is safer.
An alternative digging for food is something I’ve labeled dumpster diving 2.0. I was visiting a friend at the local franchise of a coffee shop mega chain and off-handly asked if she threw out any any food. The answer was obviously yes, everyday they threw out bags of sealed, uneaten sandwiches, muffins, biscotti, cookies ect. This was effectively the end of my feeding 10-15 teens a day, but I was doing yoga three hours a day at that point and was pretty busy anyway. Until I left Parksville, my friend Daryl and I were handed between 5 and ten fancy Starbucks sandwiches every day. It was a big sad laugh in the face of capitalism, because once again, those same sandwiches go into the trash everyday, everywhere else.
DD 2.0 is hit and miss. Like the health food stores, personal relationships are important. Workers are usually on camera and there is the possibility of getting in trouble. My friends scanned the food, marking it for the trash, waited till the managers were out of the room, then outrightly handed them over, without repercussion. When I moved to Vancouver, I tried appealing to the good will and morality of a coffee shop worker there. It was ten minutes to closing, I told her I was new to the city, broke and hungry, but she was worried about keeping her job, so like I said, hit and miss. Then I walked two doors over to the local subway. This time I casually got the worker to tell me how much waste they produced each day. That plus a little flirting got me a free footlong. If your in a bind and don’t have any place to cook food, this technique can be helpful. Dressing semi-conservatively helps as well as finding none busy food outlets, they’ll have more to throw out at the end of the night. In terms of a back story, fashion one that’s odd but acceptable. Start by chatting them up like nothing’s out of order. Listen intently, ask questions and soon they’ll be grateful for the company. A great segue to the waste question is whether they like working there. Casually use their name in the conversation (it’s on their name tag) and get them to expand on any personal details they slip into the conversation. Most people’s favorite word is their own name, enjoy (if secretly) when people pay attention to them and like gripping about their job. This is somewhat manipulative, but your goal is to get a bit of grub that they would otherwise be tossing, so it’s okay, heck why not experiment with you new power over this poor clerk.
Another way to eat for free is soup kitchens. Soup kitchens are generally awesome. Separate from the missions where people sleep, kitchen’s are clean, only ask for a quick scribble on a signature page and folks are generally well behaved. You’ll you meet cool freaks, travelers, drunks and hookups if you need to score! The volunteers usually compassionate and outgoing people and the food is generally holism and delicious. Every big city has a place were you can go to eat for free and without hassle every day of the week. Ask the local hobo/punk population and they’ll set you up. Vancouver has a sik temple that offers fantastic free indian food.
The point is that if you try to get food for free, it’s much more fun and freaky way to get nutrience.