The space on the second floor of the large building at 23 Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv gradually begins to fill up. People trickle in slowly, each emitting a cry of admiration – “Wow,” “Ooh, how beautiful” and variations thereof. Indeed, this rough-looking space with its peeling walls, high ceiling and painted floor is incredibly lovely.
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Another decorative dimension is added by the food that is appealingly arranged on the enormous serving tables, the elegant wine bar and the table heaped with goods and produce. What makes all this so surprising is that all the dishes on display here were made from produce that was about to be thrown out, and the scrumptious-looking foods are all being presented in biodegradable serving pieces.
Environmentalism and the yawn-inducing term “sustainability” are not normally associated with aesthetics, lavish spreads or indulgence of any kind. But at the recent Tel Aviv event, titled “Something from Nothing,” the creators managed to integrate a meal made of “leftovers” with a glamorous cocktail party in the heart of Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene. Seems the two things may be more closely connected than one would think, and this is exactly what Michal Bitterman set out to show.
Bitterman, head of the environmental organization The Natural Step, set a number of rules for the evening. Rule number one: 95 percent of the food had to be made from ingredients that were going to be thrown out. The remaining 5 percent was comprised of freekeh, olive oil and spices. Rule number two: No leftovers could remain at the end of the evening – People were invited to take home whatever was left, either cooked food or raw ingredients that weren’t used in the end. Rule number three: “The event will be beautiful, fun and sexy,” in Bitterman’s words. The event lived up to all the rules, and the guests went home with fruits and vegetables and jars of other goodies.
Inviting people to take
To make her vision a reality, Bitterman turned to several people. One was Natalie Shafrir, a student at UNISG, the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, who was in charge of managing the culinary and artistic side of the event. “It’s always a bit of a shock to see good food being thrown away. It’s not just the quantity, but the quality. You see a crate of wonderful vegetables being tossed for no clear reason and it makes you wince,” says Shafrir, who went to the wholesale market in Tzrifin at five in the morning to collect produce.
Whenever a crate arrives that is deemed no good for some reason – the fruits are too small or too big, their shape is a little odd, or there’s just no demand for that item at the moment – it is tossed aside and then later brought to the huge dumpster at the edge of the market. Those crates were faithfully collected by Shafrir, at no cost, of course.
The contents of the crates that were collected two weeks before the event were delivered to chef and caterer Hanoch Shechter, who either preserved or pickled them – leeks were preserved with honey while peppers were soured with salt and curry, for example. Ingredients that were collected on the day of the event were cooked and added to the preserved and pickled vegetables.
“Half the world uses preserving, souring, pickling and fermenting as a serious basis in the kitchen,” Shafrir explains. South Korea has its famous kimchi, Eastern Europe has its sauerkraut and the Middle East has its array of pickles. “We wanted to fully exploit these methods, to show that there can be much more to it than pickled cucumbers,” she says. “And we didn’t want to convey the message by means of a presentation. The event was meant to be a source of inspiration, to show how activism can be cultural, sexy and aesthetic.”
Why is so much food thrown out at the wholesale market?
“In America and Canada there’s a certain symmetry required as far as the appearance of the vegetable or fruit, and whatever doesn’t fit that is thrown out. Here the main reasons are the shmita year [Jewish law mandates that every seventh year fruits and vegetables be left unpicked in the field] and the concepts of teruma and ma’aser [portions of crops once set aside and given as gifts to the Jewish priests, but often just thrown out]. Because of these customs, crazy amounts of food are thrown out here.”
“Our running joke in preparing for the event was that Natalie is lying to us, that she’s really going out and buying all the vegetables. Because it’s hard to believe that stuff of this quality is thrown out,” says Shachter.
When Shachter gives me a tour of the kitchen as he is busy preparing for the event, I’m flabbergasted by the thought that this big crate of beautiful-looking kohlrabi was supposed to be thrown away. The same goes for the onions, beets, tomatoes, lemons, and the heaping piles of mangos and melons, which all look just fine and utterly normal.
With the sweet potatoes, the reasoning is clearer – they are all gigantic. Yet Shachter lovingly holds up one sweet potato and says: “Think about the kitchen in a kindergarten or a yeshiva – This is the perfect size for a lot of people. Think how amazing it would be if, at the end of the day, the wholesale market would put out all these crates of produce and just invite people to come and help themselves.”
During the Tel Aviv event, Hila Harel demonstrated how to make pickled vegetables. She took a crate of cabbage and some other fruits and vegetables that were going to be thrown out at the wholesale market, added some things that she picked around Florentin neighborhood, like peppers and various herbs, and then she sliced and salted and mixed and pickled cabbage for the assembled crowd. Guests had been asked to bring along a few empty jars from home, and these were filled with the pickled cabbage. “To me it’s like magic,” says Harel. “The pickled cabbage is delicious, keeps for a long time and also produces healthy bacteria for the digestive system. There’s a reason you find something like it in almost every culture.”
Bitterman, a lawyer by trade, holds a master’s degree in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from the Blekinge Technological Institute in Karlskrona, Sweden. When she returned to Israel in 2007, she founded the Israeli branch of TNS, an organization that originated in Sweden in 1989 and has since spread to 15 countries.
“We invent tools and methods for promoting sustainability and try to connect it to the mainstream,” explains Bitterman. “The Israeli branch of the organization has chosen several topics to develop – one is the food, which we will be focusing on in the next few years, with the aim of reducing the amount of food that goes to waste, and to involve consumers, businesses, academia, government and civil society in this endeavor.”
To further the cause, TNS Israel operates Sustainability Transition Labs, together with stakeholders from all over the food industry, where they seek to identify the most critical points where waste occurs and the most effective ways of reducing it.
“Essentially, we’re the platform through which all the various opposing interests meet,” says Bitterman. “Whether it’s the big conglomerates like Unilever or Shufersal, or the relevant government ministries like the Environmental Ministry, or environmental organizations like Adam, Teva V’din. We currently have about 40 different organizations working with us that are involved in the whole production cycle. But we also wanted to hold some events to help get the message across.”
It certainly was yummy and fun, but I doubt that after this event people are going to start going to the wholesale market to save food that’s going to be thrown out. What were you hoping to achieve?
“The goal was to have an evening where we show that we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. We wanted to show that an entire event of this caliber can be based on ‘scraps’ and to change people’s concept of what’s edible and what isn’t. We wanted to show that sustainability can be enjoyable.”