The Best Things in Life Are Free (Food)
1. Holiday-themed cookies, Diet Coke, chicken, store-baked French bread, beer, donuts
My first real job is at an Albertsons grocery store. I’m fifteen, but I lie on my application and say I was born in 1989 so I can work 5-to-10 shifts as a cashier. When school gets out for the summer, I score an extra eight hours a week of overtime. I’m saving up for a month-long debate camp in Austin, and every time I deposit my paycheck, I store the carbon copy of the deposit slip in an envelope on my desk, as though I’ll need them someday for reference.
My coworkers are great: a couple of high school kids, a few teen moms, and one girl who brings whiskey to work and lets me drink it twice. Another cashier is a year older than me and is already engaged; her fiancé works at the Jiffy Lube across the street and they live with her parents. I spend the summer making out in the stockroom with a produce manager who’s four years older than me and, I later discover, has a girlfriend.
Our store has just started using those machines that print certain coupons based on what the shopper purchases. Usually, the coupons are product-specific; a customer buying Lunchables and juice boxes might get a dollar off graham crackers, and so on. But sometimes, it prints money: coupons like “$5 off entire order until July 31.” Our hourly salary is $6.15, so we begin hoarding them; if a customer uses one, we scan it and pocket it instead of shoving it into the coupon zipper pouch. We start buying cookies from the bakery for the break room, then whole rotisserie chickens.
Turns out, morale improves considerably when minimum-wage workers can afford the groceries they’re selling. For about a week, it’s the Wild fucking West of extreme couponing. Some nights, a bagger picks up 12-packs of beer and goes to a cashier with a manager’s key who can scan the coupon four times. We’re still the bottom rung, but we’re the only ones who are in on the joke. It feels like we’re living large, printing our own paychecks and spending them again and again and again.
Within a few days, the store manager catches on and fires everyone he can. I survive the scourge. I quit two weeks later to go to debate camp, and every Albertsons store in Austin closes in the fall.
2. A multitude of mixed drinks, ceviche, sliders, blackened redfish, an entire table of meat, a few more drinks, a brownie bite
Thanks to my now-defunct food blog, I earn a spot on a few PR agencies’ email lists. In June, I get an invitation to attend the grand opening of Searsucker, one of those celebrity chef-run restaurants that brands itself as an “unpretentious, eclectic bistro” but charges six dollars for something called a “butter potato.”
I’m an underemployed college graduate living in a commune with 21 other people and tutoring two girls in math for the $45 a day that I need to cover rent and gas. When I shake my bank account, it makes “clink clink clink!” noises. My version of a nice night out with my boyfriend usually involves going to the local seminary’s park and sharing a few beers. In fact, the only opportunity I may ever have to eat at Searsucker is if they send me an email that says, “Do you want to eat free food and get free drunk or what?” I RSVP promptly.
We get free drunk first. The specialty cocktails tonight are Pimm’s cups, Moscow mules, and Manhattans, so we both get one of each and awkwardly stand near the bar, yelling “this is good!” over the music. Most of the guests look like Austin old money (dads with spray tans) or Austin start-up bros (26-year-old CEOs who probably need a spray tan). The servers, all female, are somehow more polite and accommodating than those at restaurants where I actually pay for food.
I start navigating through the crowd to reach an empty booth. On my way, I spot the grand opening’s pièce de résistance, which would continue to haunt my dreams and fuel my nightmares for years to come: the meat table.
Searsucker bills it as “charcuterie,” but it isn’t charcuterie. Typically, charcuterie is a sensible arrangement of various cured meats and confit and maybe some cheese and figs thrown in, served on some sort of rustic wooden board. The meat table, on the other hand, is a conspicuous display of indulgence: an entire 12-foot table draped in prosciutto and imported asiago and artisan olives with a dribble of house-made mustard every few feet. It looks like someone carrying an enormous cask of fine food became exhausted with his load and spilled it haphazardly, like, here, let me just drop hundreds of dollars worth of meat and cheese onto the table. It is a table of meat, and it is captivating, and it sends me into a drunken, semi-existential tailspin.
“Look at that,” I whisper to my boyfriend. He doesn’t hear me over the music, so I jab my finger toward the exorbitant display. “LOOK AT THAT.”
After spending a few minutes piling at least seven different kinds of animal flesh onto our plates—”do we pick it up with our hands? Okay I’m using my hands”—we slide into the booth to admire our cache. I’m caught between a feeling of amusement and … what? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like something between guilt and perplexity. “Do you feel kind of weird about this?” I ask my boyfriend, who tilts his head quizzically.
It’s not just the waste or the conspicuous overabundance; it’s the unabashedly cavalier presentation. Fancy food for rich people comes in small portions, plated just-so, to communicate without words: “Here is a delicate arrangement of pricey comestibles. Do enjoy.”
This meat table is something different. The imported meats and decade-aged cheeses are haphazardly strewn across the table, as if to say, “Take it, if you want; it’s free. We have more.” It’s the same gesture as shaking up a bottle of expensive champagne and showering it over soccer players who just won a game, or throwing up handfuls of $100 bills in a music video. It’s the difference between “bon appetit” and “fuck it.” As I watch a man absentmindedly grab a wad of Serrano ham with his fingers while the kitchen crew brings out additional plates of meat to dump on the table, it hits me: There are people who will never know this type of excess, and there are people who will never know anything but this type of excess.
It’s too weird and the servers are too smiley and the music’s too loud. I grab a brownie on the way out. The next day, I regret not shoving a few more in my purse.
3. Seven loaves of bread
The first time I hear about dumpster-diving—not in the abstract, but in terms of someone I know actually doing it—is shortly after I move into a co-op for the first time. “Some of our housemates get food from coffee shops and grocery stores after they close for the night,” a girl from another house tells me. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff they throw away.”
Rescuing free, good food from trashcans intrigues me both as a political and practical concept (I’m still poor). When I talk to my friends about it, they’re intrigued too, but most of them aren’t enthusiastic or desperate enough to actually rummage through a dumpster—except for Jackson, who builds his own garden beds out of scrap wood and sometimes bikes ten miles to volunteer at a farm. “Let’s go tonight,” he says.
I meet him in front of my house with my bicycle in tow. We peddle the four blocks to the bakery in silence, and I cautiously turn off my front light before we cruise into the parking lot and toward the dumpster. It’s mostly dark inside and the parking lot is empty, but we still try to make as little noise as possible when we dismount and lean our bikes against a telephone pole.
It isn’t until I am actually standing in front of the dumpster that I begin to understand what we’re doing. It sits in a thin puddle of black slime, and I realize that a bakery dumpster is basically a W Hotel for large cockroaches, one of my most powerful phobias despite the constant, unwelcome immersion therapy that hot Texas summers provide. I guess I had imagined a power-washed dumpster overflowing with loaves of hot, fresh sourdough and cinnamon rolls, maybe neatly packaged in powder-blue parchment and tied up with a ribbon. In reality, there are only a few black trash bags at the very bottom of the dumpster, which comes up to my chest. I turn to ask Jackson what we should do, but he’s already standing on a plastic crate preparing to crawl into the yawning maw of the bin.
“Where’d you get that?” I ask, nodding to the crate.
“I brought it from home,” he says before disappearing into the dumpster.
I climb onto the crate and shine the light from my phone onto the black bags. “What if we find a body!” I whisper.
He opens a bag, shakes it around. “There’s only scraps in here.”
The back door of the bakery creaks, and I turn around, and Jackson stands up and peers over the edge. A lady. She has another trash bag in her hand, and she looks nice—the kind of tattooed, young Austinite who probably smokes American Spirits but also takes her dog on long, sweaty runs around the lake.
“Hi,” she says to us, in a half-question half-mocking way, and I know that she probably saw us when we biked through the parking lot. She hands me the trash bag. “There’s some used coffee grounds in there, but the bread should be fine.”
“Oh,” I say. “Thanks.” I open it up to show Jackson: about a half dozen wheat loaves with crackly crusts dusted with flour.
“Yeah,” she says. “We close at 9:30, and we’ll give you the extra bread if you just ask the cashier before we lock up.”
“Cool,” I mumble and nod.
“You … don’t have to crawl into the dumpster,” she says, in a tone that is warm but not devoid of condescension, before turning and walking back into the bakery.
Natalie spends all her money in Texas and tweets @nsanluis.