My Pile: The Kitchen Sink

The chill of winter has settled over the landscape and across my pile. The thermometer outside my back kitchen door hasn’t ticked much above 30 degrees over the past 10 days.

The wood chips I spread before Christmas under my forsythia hedges and untended areas are frozen in place, like brittle particle board. The hardwood trees creak in the wind; the sap within the branches having retreated deep down the trunks into the roots. The ground is rock hard, and to keep from shattering the blades of grass I try to vary the path I beat each morning to check on my pile.

I haven’t seen a wisp of steam rising from my pile in a week, though am pleased to see that its crown has sagged into itself, forming a craggly crater. Perhaps it still percolates, deep down within.

My bucket of kitchen scraps is nearly full, and the winter downtime has given me time to cook up a plan to excavate a hole in the top of my pile and tuck the fermenting leftovers and coffee grounds into its midst. I visualize the crusty round loaf of bread that restaurants hollow out to ladle in a serving of chowdery soup.

I’ve also scouted the yard of my across-the-street neighbor for a batch of wind-blown leaves to add to the mix, and I have stowed a bucket of tangled seagrass stems gathered from the beach last weekend beside my pile. I’ll sprinkle them across the top when I’m done, to return my pile to its full midwinter form.

I like how my pile allows me to ponder and plot; it also teaches me patience. I will serve no compost before its time.

But a long week’s worth of garbage awaits. My backyard neighbor called a couple nights ago to let me know that the small ash can that her family uses to store their kitchen trimmings and rabbit-hutch cleanings is stuffed full as well. I suggest she start a second bucket and assure her that any varmints that might have an interest in rooting around the pails of frozen food waster are surely in hibernation. At worst, I could park the bucket in the backyard shed for safe-keeping. I’ve used it before as a cold-storage unit for kitchen scraps between my winter infusions to my pile, especially after a snowstorm covers it.

My back-fence neighbor adds to the week’s worth of kitchen scraps that will keep my pile cooking all winter long.

I’m glad to have a close neighbor who “gets” my compost pile. She grew up on a small, multi-generational family compound on the outskirts of Budapest, in the Cold War era. Now the mother of four very American girls, she remains a frugal Hungarian housefrau from the Eastern Bloc, and her kitchen scraps are quite unlike mine: hefty stalks stripped bare of their Brussel sprouts, lots of eggshells, potato peels and hard-pressed pellets of coffee grinds from her French husband’s espresso maker. Over dinner, she tells her kids of growing up in a multi-generational, semi-rural household with a large kitchen garden and a variety of fruit trees. Canning the apricots, slaughtering the pig before Christmas, packing the potatoes, turnips and beets in straw for storage in the cellar. They made the most of what they had, and wasted little. Her girls clean their plates at every meal.

Much different from my own mother, who had no further use for even the slightest potato peel – not for soup stock, much less for a bucket of festering food scraps to keep in the kitchen. Swanson’s TV dinners were a staple in our house. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I bet we discarded enough pocketed aluminum trays to make a jet airplane.

My mother was raised on a large Midwestern farm, where nature was mastered and the corn and milo fields were managed by awesomely large machines. Summer visits to my grandfather’s farm were always fun, albeit on an agro-industrial scale, playing on the huge green John Deere tractors and combines, running around the cobalt blue AO Smith silos as tall as Titan rockets.

I don’t ever recall seeing any sort of kitchen garden out back, and one day when I brought an ear of corn plucked from the edge of a corn field behind the barns full of machinery, my grandfather tossed it aside, saying it was yellow corn fit only for livestock. The vast corn rows along the rural highway that ran by his ranch house were labeled with small metal signs marking their genetic variety and, likely, the type of herbicide sprayed by crop duster and tractor pulling a liquid spreader with a wingspan even wider.

Interestingly, those two worlds intersect in Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts,” a classic on garden writing. An American who married a Hungarian baron in the decade before World War II, Perenyi writes of “remembering the smoking piles of straw and manure on our Hungarian estate.” Urged by her husband to flee Europe in the early days of the war, Perenyi relocated to the Connecticut coast, where she spent the rest of her long and productive life writing and gardening. She had a particular and prescient passion for composting:

When I learned about composting after the war, it was a hobby for cranks, and neighbors refused to believe the heaps didn’t attract rats (They don’t.) Now that ‘organic’ has become a catch word, composting has even acquired a kind of mythical status. That is nonsense. It is a practice as old as agriculture, and no civilization has survived for long that hasn’t found a way to recycle its vegetable and animal wastes…

“Composting was, in fact, general throughout the world until the development of chemical fertilizers, which farmers were brought to believe were all that was necessary to replenish the soil.  Especially was this true in advanced America. I certainly did when I planted our wartime victory garden….and knowing nothing of the virtues of mulch, allowed the chemicals to be poured on. The family paid handsomely, too, to have the leaves raked up and removed each fall. It pains me now to think of it.

“You can’t buy compost. Neither can a healthy, well-conducted garden do without it. Even if you can’t bring yourself to believe in it as fertilizer and use it only in conjunction with chemicals, you still can’t do without it, for the very life of the soil itself depends on it. Without the microorganisms at work in compost, soil would literally be dead.”

Agribusiness still rules the range and the supermarket shelf, but things have changed on the home front all across the country, cities and suburbs. Over my lifetime, recycling has had its fits and starts, but increasingly it has become big business, an ingrained personal habit to some, if not a necessity for many others as mandated by municipalities overwhelmed by the trash our lifestyles produce.

The push to reuse, recycle and eat local is driven by a growing grass-roots awareness of ecological concerns and passions, to be sure, but also by the sheer scale of the food we waste and the cost and logistics of what to do with all the resulting garbage we now produce.

I read in a recent report the EPA found that 21% of the municipal waste stream in the US is made up of food waste. That’s the largest segment of all waste types generated, greater than paper and even plastic.

It’s easy to track this trend, which started, as many such innovations do, on the West Coast. In 2009, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to make composting food waste mandatory, with a goal of becoming “zero waste” by 2020.

If you live in Seattle these days and throw away a banana peel or dumped expired milk into the garbage, you are in for a fine, reported CNN recently.

The network explained: “The new program will come into effect in January 2015 for commercial establishments and residences.

“Why is Seattle making residents compost? The city was not going to meet its self-imposed goal of recycling 60% of all waste.

“Compostables are about 30% of what is still in the garbage and they are the largest target we have to help us reach our goals,” said Timothy Croll, solid waste director of the utilities commission. “Also, composting food waste reduces emissions of methane, which is a strong cause of climate change.”

“Closer to home, before he left office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The report on CNN continued: “Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, the company that handles San Francisco’s food-waste recycling, said New York City is “definitely on the right track.” He added, “Food scraps are one of the most important types of refuse because they are full of nutrients and carbon, critical resources for the environment and human health.”

Much of San Francisco’s food waste, an article in National Geographic informs, is processed at a compost facility called Jepson Prairie Organics, 55 miles east of San Francisco in Vacaville. The orange rinds and pizza boxes are then feasted on by microbes, until they turn into rich compost, a natural fertilizer that is in demand by the region’s agricultural producers.

“A lot of wineries in Napa and Sonoma are big buyers of the compost [because] it has [a] high nutrient value, so that’s a nice way to close out the loop from what we put in our green bins,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, the communications director for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. The compost is also sold to individuals, landscapers, and the highway department. It is approved for use with certified organic soil.”

Repurposed from an old wine cooler, my humble Hooch bucket seems quite a fitting storage vessel for the kitchen scraps destined for my pile. And though it’s not destined for anything so grand as a Napa vineyard, I consider each finished batch of compost I produce from my own backyard a unique vintage in its own right.

Each year varies in composition and terroir. This year, I suspect, my pile will produce a briny, homebrewed mix of humus, rendolent of seaweed and mollusk shell, with a taste of oak tannin, a bit of pumpkin spice, dash of coffee, hint of horseshoe-crab shell and a subtle afternote of Angora rabbit pellets.

Despite frigid temps, my pile is still cooking inside. Mixing in a fresh batch of kitchen scraps will replenish the fuel supply.


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