Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dumpster Diving in Berkeley

Where are the best dumpsters in Berkeley?

According to Novella Carpenter, whose new memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is getting rave reviews, the award goes hands down to Eccolo, the upscale restaurant on Fourth Street. Carpenter is in a position to know as she scavenged through East Bay dumpsters a few years ago to find food to feed her ravenous pigs. She recounted those adventures Thursday night at a Berkeley Arts and Letters lecture with author Michael Pollan.

Carpenter, whose urban farm is on 28th and Martin Luther King streets in Oakland, at first fed her pigs fish guts found from dumpsters in Chinatown. But the pigs rebelled, and refused to eat the fish carcasses, forcing Carpenter and her boyfriend, Bill, to travel to more rarified eateries.

They started going to the dumpster behind Semifreddi’s in Berkeley. That dumpster was locked, but Carpenter soon figured out that the combination was the same as the store’s address. One time she crawled in and was joined by a young man. He kept tossing out entire baguettes. When Carpenter asked him why those loaves weren’t good enough, the man replied that he was looking for Semifreddi’s famous cinnamon bread, which was wrapped in plastic. Sure enough, he found a few loaves.

Carpenter then trolled other dumpsters where she found huge chunks of gourmet cheeses, including brie, slightly-over-cooked pizza from one restaurant’s wood-burning oven, and a whole container of Spanish rice and beans. Her pigs loved the food.

But then Carpenter heard rumors of the fabulous food in Eccolo’s dumpster. She and Bill went there late one night. When she opened the lid, the smell of roasted chicken wafted through the air. It smelled so good that Carpenter was tempted to eat it. She climbed up and loaded two whole chickens, some roasted fennel, and other greens into her bucket. Suddenly a voice rose up: “Please explain what you are doing?” Carpenter turned around to see a man in a blue suit on the ground below her.

Interestingly enough, when Carpenter explained she was looking for food to feed her pigs, the man suggested she directly contact Chris Lee, the owner of Eccolo, as he might be willing to help her. Carpenter did that, and the two developed a close relationship. Lee gave Carpenter food for her pigs. When the time came to kill them, Lee helped arrange their slaughter, and then helped Carpenter make salami and prosciutto from the meat. Lee hosted Carpenter’s book release party at Eccolo as well.

Pollan has had his own adventures killing chickens as part of his research for The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He read a short segment about slicing chicken arteries and his inability to eat chicken for days afterward. Pollan also confessed he had raise a pig as a child. The pig’s name? Kosher.

The lecture with Carpenter and Pollan was the last of the spring season for Berkeley Arts and Letters. The speakers series was started in the fall of 2008 by Melissa Mytinger, who booked the author events at Cody’s for 26 years. After Cody’s closed in June 2008, Mytinger teamed up with Praveen Madan, the c0-owner of the Booksmith in San Francisco, to start the series.

While Berkeley Arts and Letters might seem like it was patterned after San Francisco’s well-regarded City Arts and Lectures, Mytinger said is it not. The artists and authors who come are a bit edgier than those in the city, reflecting Berkeley’s less mainstream views.

The fall line up already looks promising: Sherman Alexie, Orman Pamuk, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Karr, and Peter Richardson and Robert Scheer, who will talk about Richardson’s new book on Ramparts Magazine.

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