Pot Luck at Its Most Daring

A holiday frenzy into the world of dumpster diving.

I owed a friend dinner. I had a bottle of Pinot Noir, but was low on vegetables. I couldn’t stomach the lines at the Berkeley Bowl, so I invited my friend to join me in surveying the dumpsters of Berkeley’s gourmet markets.

Another friend who’d done a bunch of this, 25-year-old Gabriel Showers of Berkeley, describes Dumpster diving as “a lifestyle” and “a form of survival.” Heeding the advice of someone else for whom this lifestyle is a routine, we took precautions against dangerous germs, slimy trash, or the gaze of people we might know. Long sleeves and pants, hats, old sneakers, thick dishwashing gloves, and sunglasses made up our uniform.

I pulled in around a Lexus at the Monterey Market, a grocery that specializes in locally grown and organic produce. Its dumpster sits in a busy area near the vegetable stands outside. We strolled up to it and plucked the best items from the top: Three heirloom tomatoes, two red peppers, some bunches of baby carrots with slimy tops but otherwise in good shape, and a baby artichoke. Then, when some of the patrons began to look askance at our eagerness, and a second dumpster yielded only rotten melons, we left.

Successful diving, it seemed, requires luck. You hit a jackpot. Then the next few hours yield nothing but trash compactors and empty bins. Then you hit another one, but it’s all white bread or celery. “It does take skill,” Showers notes.

Skills that are useful include dodging zealous employees, being able to negotiate the light security fence, and knowing when yogurt truly goes bad, as opposed to when it merely says it has expired. No one wants to get sick, or caught.

Monday appeared to be grocery-store trash day. At the Berkeley Bowl, for which we had the highest hopes, four employees forklifted six dumpsters into a waiting truck. Safeway, we learned, has a trash compactor.

We expanded our search to bakery trash. The All-Star Donut Shop Dumpster on College Avenue smells good, but is padlocked. Scharffen Berger chocolate, we learned, has an immaculate white dumpster out back that exudes the heady fragrance of the high-quality chocolate the factory produces. But it was empty. I consoled myself with a massive, expensive-looking flower arrangement from a wedding or funeral in the Ashby Flower Shop’s bin.

At Trader Joe’s in Emeryville, we perched on top of the brick wall around the trash to assess its potential. A head bobbed up. Its owner looked up, apparently unsurprised. He held a box of soymilk and a can of McCann’s steel-cut oats. “I’ll just get out of your way,” he murmured. He offered us the oats on his way out.

Trader Joe’s, I learned, helpfully bags its trash in clear plastic. But a strong chemical smell permeated the enclosure, dissuading me from a pile of ripe strawberries. On the Tribe.net blog for dumpster divers, I found later, someone warned fellow San Francisco divers about the bleach used at Trader Joe’s. One respondent said he hoped the store intended to keep rodents away, not gutter punks.

A turbaned security agent arrived. He politely asked us if we worked for Trader Joe’s, then just as politely asked us to leave.

Sometimes, you have to network. At Semifreddi’s cafe on Alcatraz Avenue, a young employee just off work eagerly tipped us off with directions to the main bakery on Sixth Avenue. There, in the sunshine, we crowed. Six huge dumpsters filled with fresh ciabatta, walnut levain, batards sweet or sour, Nana’s Marble Cake.

We filled up the Subaru and planned for bread pudding.

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