Waste Not

Color photograph of a table place setting with a fork, two spoons, and a knife beside a plate with stenciled words made from edible brown powder
A place setting for Waste Not (photograph by Flavio Scollo)

One evening last July, the writer Alexandra Kleeman (2021 Fellow) collaborated with her Academy colleagues and the Rome Sustainable Food Project on an event called Waste Not, an experimental five-course meal based on the themes of waste, salvage, ephemerality, and value. The entire menu was shaped by leftover or excess materials, not just one or two components of a dish. The full dining experience reflected this idea, too.

Kleeman first conceived of Waste Not when the Lazio region was a red zone, with strict lockdown measures. In an introduction to the event, she wrote, “It’s become common to refer to these long months of pandemic, quarantine, and social distancing as ‘wasted time’: time where we were unable to either concentrate on work or lose ourselves in relaxation, time when relationships felt distant or stalled, time when shutdowns of all kinds stilled progress we had hoped to make or eliminated the path forward completely…. How should we think of this time, how should we remember it, how can we salvage or make use of something that goes so counter to our usual impulses?”

“Coming out of Covid,” said RSFP head chef Kyle Pierce, “Alexandra wanted to involve the kitchen, and the sustainability of the kitchen, using ingredients that are normally overlooked or thrown away.” She had been pondering the phenomenon of wasted time as an artist or writer—what to do with the stuff written or created but eventually discarded from a completed work. She was also thinking about recipes developed but never cooked or served, about the time spent prepping a vegetable, as well as ingredients that are the byproduct of food preparation or cooking. Pierce remarked, “How do we bring that to the plate for this dinner?” He and Kleeman met several times to discuss what plate to use, how the food would look alongside the writing, and other details.

Pierce’s kitchen found beautiful, thoughtful, and delicious solutions. They concocted a vegetable antipasto with scraps of peppers, eggplant, and tomato marinated with ricotta cheese, which as recooked liquid is itself a waste product. They also served pappa al pomodoro, a thick tomato soup often accompanied by stale bread. Then the kitchen created sauerkraut dumplings, using excess cabbage that is fermented in the wintertime to extend its longevity, followed by biscotti with a caramel sauce made from whey, another byproduct of cheesemaking.

The plates featured ephemeral text fragments culled from an unpublished prose poem by Kleeman that meditated on lockdown and recuperation, stenciled directly on plates with edible powders. For the opening course, the tomato-powder text stated: “I read once that ‘writing is the body’s imprint on wet sand’ but in this half-empty city, they write in stone.” Diners poured olive oil onto the plate and soak the mixture up with bread, blurring the letters until they disappeared. The writer Alex Gilvarry, a Fellow Traveler and Kleeman’s partner, helped with the arduous process of stenciling powders into phrases directly onto dinner plates, an especially difficult task in Roman summertime humidity.

The collaboration involved several more members of the Academy community. Months earlier Francesca Berni (2021 Italian Fellow) had been collecting the paper tablecloths that lined daily lunches at the Academy, painting them with orange and green brush strokes. These works made their way back to the dinner table as left(l)overs. Composers Katherine Balch (2021 Fellow) and Ted Moore played a prerecorded piece during the meal, titled Process, that was created using secondary sounds generated in the process of composition, and afterward William Dougherty (2021 Fellow) performed Re-sounding Alessandro Moreschi [work in progress], a composition on piano and electronics that repurposed and resculpted rare recordings of a late-nineteenth-century castrato.

Kleeman wanted nothing left at the dinner’s conclusion. To her the meal “is perhaps the only form of labor that is considered a success when it leaves no trace, no monument to its existence, no final product to outlast the experience.” Indeed, as the phrase on the cookie plate read, “Despite the time interred, we do not complain at the end of a meal when there is nothing left to show for it.”

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