Zero Waste: Creating Culinary Feats from Leftovers
default, Zero Waste: Creating Culinary Feats from Leftovers, Food waste, photo: Arkadiusz Ziółek / East News, center, resztki_en.jpg
After the post-1989 wave of mindless food consumption, which resulted in landfills of waste, the trend of culinary thoughtfulness has returned to Poland – though this time it’s not the result of scarcity. Creating exclusive dishes out of food waste is gaining in popularity.
Old Poland’s hierarchy
Reading of the descriptions of sumptuous feasts from centuries ago might make one think that the citizens of old Poland ate without measure and wasted heaps of food. However, the image of Polish cuisine as never-ending gluttony and wastefulness is false. Besides the fact that the poor often suffered from hunger and there was no way they could throw away any food, in the 17th century, the rich magnate courts still followed a strict hierarchy at the dinner table. Because of this rule, even a participant of a sumptuous feast could leave it feeling peckish. The dishes were served first to the host or the honorary guest and only then to the less important figures. In effect, the latter had to make do with meat leftovers, bare bones or… with nothing at all. Nothing went to waste.
A thrifty housewife does not waste
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In the Renaissance period, even though the rich were able to squander, it was a sign of bad taste. Similarly, 19th-century Polish culinary books propagated the image of a perfect, frugal housewife and presented ideas for utilising leftovers. They could turn these leftovers into real treats such as aspics or salads. At the end of the 19th century, using leftovers to prepare meals for the poor was not a whim but an obligation of conscious housewives who had to educate the staff. Forgotten author Teresa Prażmowska encouraged it in the illustrated women’s magazine Fashion and Novel Weekly:
There is not a single house where, every day, food scraps remain, thrown out by the staff with no consideration of the love of one’s neighbour, forgetting that there are hungry people in the world. One of the best ways to support the poor is not through charity, given begrudgingly, but through a constant and continuous memory of them, paired with a bit of effort and work…
Feed the poor with a tasty meal
It was not about providing a poor man with a bowl of leftovers, crumbs and fruit peels or scraps of burnt meat, but about feeding him with a tasty meal. If a deliciously golden bone with meat scraps remained after a roast, and there was also some soup, a few spoons of sauce, some cabbage, potatoes, groats and noodles, the housewife should have done the following:
[…] Instead of throwing it out, instead of storing bones in the least accessible cupboard to feed cockroaches, the chef – or, to give a good example, the housekeeper – should use those items to prepare a meal for the hungry beggar. We consider fatback peels to be unusable after removing fat from them; the same goes for pea pod shells. Whereas, if you cook those two things together for a few hours, you can get a nourishing and tasty broth (eagerly eaten by wealthy French peasantry). You can create many, many similar dishes with some thoughtfulness and good faith from the housekeeper or the chef.
After almost 200 years, chefs of the young generation, involved in the ‘zero waste’ or ‘no waste’ movement starting in Poland, remind us about the same approach to food. Cooking using leftovers, the unappreciated, rejected vegetable or meat parts, can prevent not only waste but can also aid the fight against malnourishment. Among the things that we can use in the kitchen, there are cabbage stumps, broccoli and kohlrabi leaves, kale stems, potato skins, bones and even the leftovers from beer production such as brewer’s grain.
Everyday savings in the household
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Cover of 'Bluszcz', illustrated weekly periodical for women, 1936, nr 1 (4 January), photo: National Library of Poland / Polona
After reclaiming independence, the topic of waste was often discussed in the press, for example, in Kurier Warszawski:
In a well-organised household, nothing should go to waste – first of all, all leftovers should be used. Often some fanciful dish, a snack that came from a good idea and some leftovers, is tastier than the proper dish for which the actual ingredient was used.
The reader could find recipes for cooking with scraps of meats, cold cuts, sausages, unused vegetables, half-eaten cakes and bread. Here is an exemplary recipe for a leftover pudding made from dried out Christmas puddings, published in Bluszcz magazine in 1936:
Remove the icing from the leftover puddings and dry them out in an oven. Afterwards, grind them into a powder. For every two cups of ground pudding, add enough hot milk so that it forms a medium-moist dough. Add six egg yolks and add sugar if needed. Add a teaspoon of butter and gently mix in the foam from the six egg whites. Put the dough into a mould with a hole in the middle, cover it and cook for an hour and a half.
This leftover pudding could be served with chaudeau – a once common dessert sauce served warm, made from egg yolks beaten with sugar, wine and lemon or orange zest. Even the water used for cooking potatoes, noodles or vegetables had its place in the everyday kitchen. The topic gained importance during the occupation period – columnist Elżbieta Kiewnarska wrote about it in her 1942 book titled Everyday Savings in the Household.
Nine million tonnes of food thrown out per year
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Under the communist regime, reports of meat shortages contrasted with information about swine fever resulting from sanitary negligence. However, throwing food away on a bigger scale started for good only after 1989 – people born before this year still remember there was no way to get up from the table without cleaning one’s plate. Nowadays, nine million tonnes of food goes to waste each year and one-third of this comes from the households. Every month, the average Polish family throws away food worth 200 złoty (more than 200 kg per person annually). This puts Poland in the shameful top five of the European Union. Poles do not store well, buy and cook too much, mix up expiration labels (‘best if used by’ and ‘use by’), lack knowledge on conservation or alternative usage for stock meat (as opposed to grand-grandmothers and grandmothers raised during the interwar and post-war periods). Part of the food goes bad during the transport, another part in the storage. When it finally hits the market shelves, it has a very short expiration date.
Zero waste – raising awareness
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Even though food waste is countered on many official levels, grassroots initiatives and raising awareness are both very important. Promoters of the zero waste lifestyle emphasise that everyone should take individual steps: buy consciously, store consciously and use the leftovers in a reasonable manner. Culinary books and shows focusing on zero waste start to appear, and the values of many forgotten female authors from the end of the 19th century gain importance in the era of consumerism. Sylwia Majcher, the author of Gotuję, Nie Marnuję: Kuchnia Zero Waste po Polsku (I Don’t Waste, I Cook: Polish-Style Zero Waste Kitchen), emphasises that throwing away food starts to become distasteful, while the ability to creatively use the leftover is now appreciated. There is also more to it – learning to plan the menu, creating shopping lists, not buying too much food, remembering different methods of storage, freezing, pickling, pasteurising, drying and reading the expiration labels.
‘Poverty King’ and New Epiphanies
The ennoblement of food waste, leftovers and damaged or broken items, of places and memories, is sometimes the main theme of cultural events. During the feast of the ‘Poverty King’, organised in 2019 in Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle during the New Epiphanies Festival, chef Michał Czekajło (member of the Food Think Tank collective) who is the owner of a zero waste kitchen in Browar Stu Mostów in Wrocław, baked a cake from leftovers from the beer production process (brewer’s grain) and served chips made from peelings. For the dessert, Olga Głębicka created a cake baked from stale bread, served on broken porcelain. A big pot of simple soup made from root vegetables reminded us that the time of Lent is a time of poor, rejected produce – such as peelings or root vegetables, or conserved foods which are actually leftovers. Monika Kucia, the event’s co-organiser, said:
Wrinkled celery can serve as a royal apple and a pile of cooked bones can deliver valuable nutrients. Elixirs and liquors, a source of energy throughout the winter, can be made from wild plants.
Sometimes, the fight against waste takes a radical form. In social media, freegans create groups that allow their members to exchange food retrieved from dumpsters (dumpster diving). Initiatives are born from the idea of food sharing – the free exchange of food. Such phenomena are still a niche in Poland but there are already several dozens of active food sharing points.
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