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.


My Pile: Gourmet Beginnings

A gardener is very much an editor.

That sensibility has played out over a career largely spent writing and editing for a mix of national magazines. It also might help explain my fascination with the pleasure and the process that is composting.

“The perpetual regeneration of forest parallels the timelessness of literature,” Richard Fortey writes in “The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature.” A noted paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Fortey retired to a four-acre patch of woodland in Oxfordshire; his book is a closely drawn account of what he found in those ancient woods over the course of a year. “The wood is as old as, or even older than, the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf, proving the endurance of art can be tracked by the life of trees.”

My pile begins as a load of raw if purposeful rubbish that over time and with some effort is refined into a finished product put to immediate use. As such, it is of incremental, temporary value, more ephemeral than lasting. A heap of fresh compost pales in comparison to a stately old beech tree that stands and delivers for generations; my pile is not literature; more like yesterday’s news in search of a better end than as bird-cage liner or a wrapper for Mr. Fortey’s fish ‘n’ chips.

There’s no exact recipe for making compost; it’s a creative, unscripted act, yet its production plays out in a time-honored format and fashion. My pile is very much a magazine; at its root, the word refers to a collection or storage location, like a gunpowder artillery magazine. My pile is the Guns & Ammo of gardening.

My vocation as an writer and editor and my avocation as a backyard gardener and composter go hand in hand. I often mull over writing projects while busying myself with the pruning and curating and transplanting that can keep a suburban backyard gardener preoccupied. I also sometimes plot out garden and landscaping projects while idling myself at work.

I’ve kept a backyard compost pile since my days as a writer/editor with a food magazine in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

It was a wonderful job in many respects, chief among them the twice-daily tastings in the test kitchen. Every recipe that ran in the magazine, and then some, were prepared in-house by our chefs, with assists from other staffers and guest editors.

The tastings were held three days a week, the first at 10 am and the second at 2 pm. I was invited to attend not because I had much culinary expertise but because for much of my tenure at the magazine I was the designated male among an office-full of women. Maybe my boss figured that my taste buds, if not discriminating, were at least different enough to give me a seat at the table.

In truth, the dishes were almost always delicious because the chefs could turn even the sketchiest handwritten recipe from some homemaker in Omaha into something to savor.

I’d hang out in the test kitchen as much as I could, watching and listening and smelling all that went into their work while avoiding the stack of recipe transcripts and manuscripts in my inbox.

This was in the early days of modern comfort food, just as the artery-clogging, cholesterol-laden recipes of old were being replaced by Mediterranean menus, featuring lots of vegetables simply prepared and seasoned not with rich sauces but with fresh herbs and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I ate amazingly well from 9 to 5, and couldn’t get a date for the better part of three years.

I don’t recall how the subject of me taking home all the trimmings the cooks threw out each day came up, but once they knew of the modest compost heap I’d started in the side yard of the duplex I rented, they happily and conscientiously loaded me up with all the kitchen scraps I could take home at the end of each day.

kitchen scraps

It was gourmet stuff – floppy green carrot tops and big bottoms of fennel bulbs. Pounds of flicked potato peels, whole volumes of papery onion skins. Lots of shrimp shells, as I recall  — all in all, enough, usually, to fill two paper grocery bags every test-kitchen day.

Each issue of the magazine included about 100 recipes, which every month found its way into a million or more kitchens. Food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom, writing in his blog,, continues the math by reporting that 95 percent of the food waste produced in the U.S. that could be composted actually ends up going into a landfill or incinerator.

Food waste accounts for some 28 percent of all this trash, though Bloom argues that the total amount of food wasted in the U.S. is actually closer to 40 percent when you take into account farm loss or waste between farm and retailer.

Even though a minuscule amount of food and other organic material ends up being composted, overall the recycling or composting of organic material, including paper products and yard trimmings, “prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Diverting these materials from landfills prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year,” according to an EPA report Bloom cites.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I suppose my LA compost pile offset its fair share of the smog I created driving back and forth to work each day, to help produce a magazine made of many acres of wood pulp.

“When we throw away food we don’t just throw away nutrients,” points out David Owen in The Conundrum, “We also throw away the energy we used in keeping it cold as we lost interest in it, as well as the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and preparing it (assuming we got that far), along with its proportional share of our staggering national consumption of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water, packaging, and landfill capacity. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded. And rotting food is the main source of the methane — an especially worrisome greenhouse gas — that leaks from landfills.”

I lived in a Spanish-style duplex perched on a knoll at the base of the Hollywood Hills. On the edge of the back patio was a tall Ponderosa pine, its lower branches trimmed so the trunk branched upward and outward into a wide canopy sculpted like a statuespue standard poodle.

It was a gorgeous tree, especially in the evening when the setting sun over the Pacific and across the Los Angeles basin nearly lit it from underneath, making its orange-red bark glow and the waxy green needles sparkle. A patch of ivy covered the slope below it, and there, in the bottom corner of the yard, I carved out my first compost pile, digging steps into the terraced hillside to reach it.

Our landlord actually owned two properties on the narrow lot; our two-story unit and, behind it, a small bungalow that faced the next street over connected to our back patio by a pathway. The bungalow’s backyard was taken up by two old olive trees that shed copious amounts of long slender leaves and a rich rain of black olives.

Alongside the duplex was a sliver of grass bordered by a boxwood hedge beside the walkway to the street. The tiny lawn gave way to a small rose garden perched above the street, with an impenetrably huge hedge of brilliant magenta bougainvillea fronting the sidewalk and running alongside the downhill side of the property.

Though small and set on a hillside, the yard produced enough growth throughout the long California growing season to keep my compost pile in business. I especially liked scooping up piles of the day-glo petals of the bougainvillea to add to the heap, as thin as the breath strips you put on your tongue and just as fast to decompose.

Profoundly spoiled by the chefs in the test kitchen, at times my pile was more kitchen scraps than yard refuse. It was a turbocharged stew of vegetable matter, with just a few rakefuls of pine needles, scratchy live-oak leaves, a dose of grass clippings and a dollop of homegrown rotting olives for me to contribute.

My landlord was happy that I took ownership of the yard, and my downstairs neighbor was pleased, too, that she could clip flowers for her apartment as she wished, and happy to have me puttering about in the yard.

Being a monthly magazine, we worked off an editorial calendar set several months ahead of real time. In October we tested our Christmas menus, which meant that our fattest issues hit at the tail end of California’s dry season and just before the winter rains began. The test kitchen worked overtime in those months, producing turkey after turkey to taste, and more important, all the trimmings for me to take home.

Pound for pound, there wasn’t a more fecund compost pile in all of Los Angeles. I’d pitch my LA compost pile as two hours of a great movie, produced from miles of raw film.

Over the course of several years of magazine issues, my gourmet compost pile helped turn a rented patch of compacted, hardpan dirt into a lush backyard oasis. When the fall rains came, the garden soaked up every drop, and the roses and bougainvillea and rosemary thrived in the California sunshine. And I became a composter.

That all changed when my downstairs neighbor got a baby pot-bellied pig for Christmas…