When I say ‘use the whole buffalo,’ all I mean is that food demands respect.
As Americans, we’ve forgotten this. Food is historically, impractically, improbably cheap right now, from a dollar standpoint, so we treat food cheaply. We throw away leftovers. We throw away vegetable trimmings. We throw away offal and fat and bone.
Other cultures developed ways to incorporate these elements into their food system. People eat repurposed leftovers and organ-meat stews every day all over the world. If they don’t eat it, they compost it or give it to the pig.
We chunk it into sterile plastic bags and bury it in landfills, because we’re rich enough that we don’t have to care.
IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY
My grandmother didn’t put up with waste.
Nonna grew up during the Depression, which meant that every scrap of edible detritus in her field of vision found its way into a meal. She lived with us in her final years, and we were amazed by the way she was able to consume leftover refrigerator remnants that the rest of us had given up on long ago.
Molding casseroles. Mummified beans. Tupperware containers of random leftovers that, absent labels, had become unidentifiable wads bound in opaque sauce. She got to it all before it was thrown away, and never exhibited any ill effects.
I’m making her habit sound somewhat repulsive, but that’s because of my viewpoint at the time. We had plenty of fresh food to eat, I didn’t see any reason to use something that was less than pristine. Looking back, I’m not repulsed—I’m inspired.
IN WHICH USING THE WHOLE BUFFALO ENJOYS A RESURGENCE
There is an artisanal butcher somewhere in your city. He has highly visible tattoos (one probably an homage to the pig) and knives with those little ripples that show how the steel has been folded a thousand and one times by silent monks in Toledo, Spain. His butcher shop is located in an area of town that was rundown and dangerous twenty years ago, but is enjoying a cultural renaissance identifiable by large numbers of art galleries and record shops.
Let’s call him Jordan.
I hope I haven’t made Jordan mad by tying his existence to hipster culture. Jordan really values his food, and that’s awesome. Jordan honors the pig (or the cow, or the chicken, or the rabbit, etc.) that gave its life by using every single part of its body to make something beautiful: a roast, a stew, a sausage, a stock. Something. No part goes to waste, because an animal died to give us that meat, and Jordan is going to do his damndest to make sure that animal gets its due respect.
Next door to Jordan’s butcher shop is a tiny vegan bistro. The owner/chef painted it in bright, funky colors and furnished it with reclaimed tables and chairs. She arranges each menu item around a different vegetable, using each part of the plant for an element of the dish. Roasted radishes in a sauce made from their tops. Whole eggplant blended into elegant baba pate. The chef doesn’t let let any part of the vegetable make its way into the garbage.
Let’s call her Jordan.
The whole nose-to-tail, stem-to-root movement is fantastic, because it means that society at large recognizes, at a marketable level, how wasteful we are.
HOW CAN WE DO BETTER?
It’s not difficult. People have lived low-waste lives for thousands of years because food was extremely valuable to them. Like, ‘I don’t have anything else to eat, so if I don’t eat this, I might die,’ kind of valuable.
First off, eat your leftovers. If you’re sick of them, freeze them. Or give them some kind of reframing, as a soup or a casserole or a taco. Shepherd’s Pie is a classic leftover repurposing. Bean soup is a good way to get through a pot of legumes. Turkey pot pie can help with Thanksgiving leftovers.
Next up, make stock! Whenever you have chicken, pork, or beef bones, onion skins and trimmings, and celery leaves and ends, throw them in a gallon bag in the freezer. Once the bag is full, load it into your stock pot, fill with water, cover, and bring it to a simmer for twelve hours or so. Then pour the stock through a strainer and keep it in the freezer in cheap plastic containers of various sizes. I try to keep 1-cup containers on hand for pan sauces, and 1-quart sizes for soup.
If you have a yard or some dedicated outdoor space (or a worm bin!), you can save your scraps for composting. I keep a big bowl at the back of my kitchen counter, right next to my cutting board. When I’m cutting up vegetables, any trimmings go right into the bowl. Coffee grinds also go in. At the end of every day (or when it starts to smell), I go dump it on the compost heap.
I don’t do great at this. I don’t always have stock on hand. I don’t always eat the leftovers. But I’m trying to do better. I’m aware of the problem. If enough of us become aware, America can join up with Jordan and Jordan and begin to use the whole buffalo.