One of the most insidious forms of food waste is the casual disposal of nourishing parts of plants and animals which are considered “inedible” for cultural reasons. A few years ago there was a splash of interest in “nose to tail cookery,” which used parts of animals that had previously been thrown away or processed into industrial products. Rejected food has a remarkably complicated afterlife – in “Pig 05049” Christien Meindertsma includes pictures of over 100 products that include substances from a single animal. When food is comparatively expensive, people find ways to use every part, and waste from one process becomes raw material for another. Leftover food and the dregs from brewing, cheesemaking, and pickling were fed to domestic animals. Cheap food makes more waste possible, but today regulations on waste are pushing industries to reinvent the circular economies of an earlier era, now with the sophistication of advanced organic chemistry.
But why are so many plant and animal parts thrown out the first place? I’ve been a fisherman my entire life, and as a beginner I was taught that the head, scales, backbone, skin, gills, internal organs and fins of a fish were inedible waste, to be thrown back into the water or put in the trash. As an anthropology student I spent a year living in a small Mayan village in the Central American rain forest, and I often went hunting, farming, and fishing with groups of men. The first time we caught some large fish in the river I was surprised to see my companions carefully cleaning out the guts of the fish, flushing the intestines using a small stick and running water. They wrapped the pile of guts in an aromatic leaf, and roasted the packet in a small fire. They explained to me that this was the best part of the fish, and only those who caught the fish got to eat it – I was surprised that it tasted so good, which got me wondering why my people always threw them away.
During a recent stay in Singapore I ate fish head curry, a pricey delicacy because the head is the tastiest portion. I also ate crispy puffs made from fish swim bladders (called fish maw on most Chinese menus), saw but did not eat sharks-fin soup, and loved the crispy fried fish skin that came with an order of congee. In the market a fishmonger showed me how a large fish like a grouper is cut into parts for different uses. The backbones, fins and scales are deep-fried, stewed or used to make stock. Internal organs, particularly the liver, eggs and milt are delicacies. I still have not tried eating fish scales, but now I am willing to try.
At one time the least desirable and cheapest parts of butchered animals were sold to the poor. As industrial meat processing took over, the lower-value portions never got shipped out to retailers, and corporations either processed them into other foods (like sausages) or sold them to be rendered into other industrial products. I remember buying some Vienna Sausages in Mexico that said the main ingredient was “pork lips.” But the average supermarket shopper never sees heads, tails, feet or organs.
Culture is the only reason some edible part of a plant or animal is wasted. Every part of most every animal can be eaten – and has been eaten by our ancestors. Culture and status determine which parts are tasty and which are disgusting. Some Americans leave the skin on potatoes when they make potato salad; others throw away the peels, or cover them with cheese and toast them. Of course nobody wants to eat some anonymous “pink slime,” but in Belize I learned to cherish pig tails in my beans, and in Ghana I happily ate roasted turkey-tails. In the USA people are moving in the opposite direction, demanding boneless fish fillet, usually hidden by a thick layer of breading. To cut waste, we need to take “nose to tail” a step further and learn new tastes.