Food waste is a scourge, and we know it. Wastefulness is embedded deep into our food system, beginning in the fields themselves and ending in our restaurants and refrigerators. Anything we could do to keep edible food out of the garbage—and maybe on our plate—would be a good thing, right?
What about… eating someone else’s leftovers? The topic came up as our staff discussed restaurants, and the plates of half-finished fries or still-good steak that get tossed into the garbage. If you were sitting at a bar, hypothetically, and the couple next to you paid and left—with half a sandwich and some fries still on their plates—would you nibble on those fries? Would you give the sandwich a bite?
Our staff was fiercely divided.
Oh, I love fries. Love fries. When I pretend I’m just going to sneak a fry off a friend’s plate, I’m actually going to eat three-quarters of the order. I’m that person, but I swear I have compensatory qualities.
Strangers’ fries, though? That’s a no-go. Maybe I’m not trusting enough. Maybe it’s judgmental of me to think that the outwardly nice couple recently sitting adjacent to me has poor oral hygiene, or doesn’t wash their hands, or enjoys the devious thrill of licking fries and putting them back on the plate.
Even a seemingly untouched half-sandwich is fraught with peril. The other diners had to grab that sandwich at least once at some point during the meal, no? I know you’re all ready to jump in and tell me how many people touched my sandwich in the kitchen before it landed on my plate—I just don’t need to add another set of hands to that count. —Kate Bernot
About two weeks ago, I came up with this question as I sat next to an abandoned plate of fries in a crowded Baltimore bar that didn’t use plastic straws. I looked around at all the non-LED lights, the crumpled paper napkins, the giant roll of plastic wrap on the bottom shelf of the back bar—I mean, those straws didn’t really matter, now did they? We’re completely, unequivocally screwed no matter what we do, because the entirety of our existence is bad for the planet. How many errant fries, side salads, or frivolous garnishes had this place thrown out over the years? How many customers had thought nothing of leaving food on their plate? And, aside from the environmental issues, I thought about the fact that outside on Charles Street there were literally people starving. We don’t normally stop to think about these things—little actions in mundane moments that are completely invisible to us. I, however, was intensely focused on this one exact moment, as I had just smoked a sizable amount of marijuana.
Even if things don’t go all Day After Tomorrow, things are still going to get really, really bad. I may not live long enough to see our descent into cannibalism or the rise of the New Robot World Order, but my kids definitely will. Climate change isn’t just going to make avocados more expensive—it is going to decimate the food supply for billions of people. It started to feel as though if I didn’t eat one of those French fries, I was doing something very morally wrong.
So I ate a few. I didn’t die, but it still felt weird. In spite of all the deep thoughts I had pinging around my brain, I felt shame not about the environment or starvation, but over the fact they were someone else’s leftover fries. Essentially, as a human being, I failed in every sort of respect in that morality test.
I’m trying to tell myself it’s not a bad thing. That it’s a social norm that may need changing, and that in the future, we may not really have a choice. That I need to pay attention to how much food I’m consuming. And if I, one day, am the woman who cannot finish her fries, I will choose give them to one of the hungry people on Charles Street, and ask my server for a plastic container.