Eating the Peel: Zero Waste as Rebellion in the Kitchen

Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2022 under Stories

Can eating an apple peel heal the planet and our psyche at the same time? I believe it’s possible. The path is perhaps one of embracing food and cooking as a spiritual practice and the seed of transformational change.

Edward Espe Brown is a Zen Priest and Cook and for many years the head cook or Tenzo of the Tassajara Zen Centre in California. He is probably most famous for his cookbook “The Tassajara Bread Book” and a 2007 film about his life titled “How to Cook Your Life”. He was also well known for his temper in the kitchen which clashes with people’s expectations of serene Zen leaders. Recently, he published a new book titled “No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice”. There are, as promised, no recipes in this book. Not for food. Instead, it is a recipe for the antithesis of modern food culture which centers celebrity, excess, personal preference, and waste.

I have been following his work since I watched his memoir-style film in 2011. What has always struck me is his unwavering focus on wasteful cooking as spiritual deficit. He walks the talk and provides detailed prescriptions for a cooking practice that respects the materials on hand (gourmet or not). His directions to “scape the bottom of the pot” and use everything up, make stock from vegetable cut-offs, ditch meal planning, only cook what you need to eat in the moment (avoid leftovers that will likely never be eaten) and buy only what you absolutely need, are both guidelines and a spiritual approach to food that our family is now building our home cooking practice around.

When I was growing up we had little money and although my mother tried her best to cook healthy food from scratch when she could, and provide us with the basics: scarcity and penny pinching was the norm. On her own with four kids and a low-paying full-time job, white bread and bologna sandwiches became the standard high school lunch. To this day, I cannot stand the smell of bologna. I had always loved cooking, food and nutrition so at 15 my mother gave me a portion of the monthly food money to learn how to budget household expenses and be independent. I began shopping for myself, planning menus, and cooking many of my own meals in the suite kitchen in the basement of the house we were renting. I learned to stretch a dollar at the grocery store and not waste food to make it last. It was an empowering lesson and one that hooked me on the joys of meal planning, shopping and home cooking for life.

When I was 17 years old I moved, on my own, to Vancouver from Saltspring Island chasing an innocent but misguided dream of being an artist. Desperately poor and struggling, in the most cliche way, I learned to make the cheapest and healthiest meal I could and ate it constantly. The meal was a mix of ramen noodles with sliced mushrooms, green onions, and broccoli in a warm salty broth. This simple and frugal meal taught me both self-sufficiency and the art of making the most of scarcity.

I ate this way for many years: cheap but healthy and wasting little, until I made my way through post-secondary education, and armed with a University job and a regular and reasonable paycheque, I suddenly didn’t have to count out the pennies I had in the grocery store aisle. No more choosing between sauce or noodles. I could buy them both. And, some shrimp and asparagus could be added to the cart without much thought if I so desired. When I moved in with my partner into our first tiny broken down apartment I cooked nearly every night. He did the dishes. I remember that time as one of the happiest times of my life. I started collecting cookbooks and exploring the world of more expensive and rarer ingredients. My partner joked my cooking had become complicated and messy. Long lists of obscure ingredients, hours of cooking, far too many dishes for a small kitchen, and slowly but surely expense and waste. Like a person lost in the desert having finally found water I wholeheartedly drank in excess until I had forgotten what thirst felt like.

Photo by Candace Ratelle Le Roy

By the time we had two kids and had moved into our townhome our pantry, freezer, and fridge overflowed with food. I became so used to being able to buy what ever I wanted that I had lost the reflex of restraint and any questions about quantity from my partner felt like a direct assault on my emotional distancing from the food scarcity of my childhood. That was until the moths came. Tiny, frail, little grey moths not much larger than a sesame seed. They had hatched in one of the many lifetime supply bags of bulk dry goods and they became a serious problem. We began to find them everywhere. Pulling all our pantry items out I found items in the back that were years past expiry. Food we had moved with us from the apartment to our townhome had still never been used. Three total sweeps were required. Each time we inspected each container and bag for signs of the moths and then would throw out the ones that had them and clean. It wasn’t until we threw nearly everything out and started fresh that we finally won the battle.

After that I was forced to realize that I had moved from scarcity to hoarding and not only was it a personal emotional issue to address but a source of serious and ongoing food waste for us as a family. My partner, the one who put the compost out each week, kept saying to me “we are wasting so much food it’s such a waste of money.” The mindless food consumerism, hoarding, and waste reflected how distracted and busy I’d become. It also drew attention finally to the ways I had absorbed all the cultural messages of more.

I’m not going to lie and weave a tale of a family that saw the light and never again wasted food. I see these tales of perfect and how it discourages people from even trying to make simple improvements. But, I can share with pride that we have learned a valuable lesson and are facing the real issue: waste is at the center of our dominant culture in North America. The food system is designed to produce excess and waste (think Costco case lots), to prey on our fears of scarcity (picture the missing bread yeast and flour from the shelves during the pandemic) and then there is FOMO-FNSD (fear of missing out on food network styled dinners).

However, our family and our growing practice of reducing food waste is part of a wider movement to push back against this culture of excess. Edward Espe Browns’ advice to ‘cook your life’ by using what you have on hand, utilizing inferior ingredients, learning cooking skills to reduce dependence on recipes, and avoiding leftovers have given us more control in our home and made cooking a thing we are less dependent on “experts” for.

I frequently am part of debates, through my work as an environmental planner and activist, around the most effective form of change. A person will say “there is no point in making small personal changes when the problem is systemic and requires changes in policy, government, laws etc.,” I’ve heard counterarguments from others saying “when you make a personal change and you demand new products and services (think gluten-free products) that a strong market and political signal will be sent to government and corporations and there will be pressure put on the system to change.” From my perspective, both of these are correct and not polars of each other. There is a need for both advocacy and market-based pressures. But, the most interesting perspective I’ve heard on this subject is from a recent interview with Frances Moore Lappe, author of the now famous “Diet for a Small Planet”. In this interview, she expressed the transformational change that happens in an individual when they put their values into action and even in seemingly insignificant ways like committing to not waste food. What this does, she says, is change how you see yourself as a change agent in the movement. Hope, she says, is not a wistful thing that you just hold in your heart and then sit back and wait for change to happen, but instead, it’s a state that is activated when in action contributing to a particular cause. Hope is activated by seeing daily change around you and believing you have the ability to make a measurable difference. Despair and nightmares of dystopia become self-fulfilling prophesies and suck the air out of individual and community action which, in turn, forms the fuel that feeds the current system.

When we, as Brown prescribes, “scrape the bottom of the pan” or plan to cook exactly, and only, what we need for that meal, we are not only reducing food waste, and saving our money, we are changing the way we see our role and our efficacy in making positive change happen in the world. We don’t just feel good about ourselves: we feel empowered and emboldened. The corporate-led world we live in feeds on feelings of inadequacy and distraction. When we are intentional, focused, and taking back control of the sleepwalking aspects of our own lives this becomes the most powerful act of rebellion we can engage in. It makes us engage our senses, builds skills and confidence, and fosters independence of thought and action that leads to more awareness and then more action. We begin to transform a dystopia and individual futility into a small but mighty power.

What would our world look like if our kitchens were places of reverence toward the land, the people who work the land, and the plants and animals that become our food? Not only would our minds change and our compost bins lighten, but also, excess and wastefulness would become more visibly vulgar and undesirable. Named and exposed in the clear light of day these consumerist idols can then be intentionally discarded, but not wasted, because they were valuable lessons on the path to an individual and community reclaiming of the story of our future. With this perspective eating the peels can be a true path to social change and transform the world from the inside out.

About the Author

Candace Ratelle Le Roy has been leading sustainability initiatives within higher education for almost twenty years and is the co-founder of Simon Fraser University’s Sustainability Initiative. She has a background in social change communication and sustainable community development and believes that storytelling can be a powerful tool for change. She is passionate about regenerative and just food systems as a keystone solution for climate-resilient communities. In her spare time, she reads and writes about food, cooks and bakes, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak vegetables into her kids’ meals with varying levels of success. Her long-term dream is to start an urban community food centre with a bakery and a farm right in the heart of a Metro Vancouver municipality.