Maximus Thaler, author of Curious Harvest
Maximus Thaler, author of A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything

Of all the things one learns while in college, dumpster diving isn’t usually one of them. But for Maximus Thaler, who is now living in Berkeley, “dumpstering” as he calls it, became a “weekend, recreational thing.”

Originally from New York’s Hudson Valley, Thaler is now taking a few courses at Cal in the hopes of getting into graduate school here. He is also the author of a new cookbook, A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything, which is illustrated by fellow Tufts alumna Dayna Safferstein.

Thaler, 24, lived in a communal house called the Crafts House at Tufts University, graduating in 2013. He majored in engineering, but hopes to study evolutionary biology, which, he says, is “directly relevant to all of this, as I see it as much more cosmic than just reducing food waste,” but that’s a topic for another article.

“The Crafts House appealed to me for a lot of reasons,” he said. “It was its own little world, where the morality, values and aesthetics were different, as was the relationship with private property. It was less of a thing than in the world outside.”

One of the hallmarks of such communal houses, of course, is cooking and eating meals together, on a fairly tight budget.

But what began mostly as a lark turned more serious in the four years he lived at the house.

“At first it wasn’t done purposefully or with the idea we would be feeding ourselves, we’d come home with bread or juice, and it was more about finding all of this cool stuff. But over the course of a four-year period, food became a lot more important to me. I had gone on enough dives that it dawned on me that I could feed the entire house with dumpstered food.”

Thaler spent summers at the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, an independent collective of artists, where he often found himself cooking for over 100 people.

“They didn’t have a lot of money, and so they got a lot of produce donated that was on the verge of going bad,” said Thaler. “It was very similar to dumpstering, in that you don’t have a lot of storage space, and you’re playing a game with bacteria. You look at a crate of broccoli and realize you’d better cook it now because tomorrow you won’t have it. It’s about understanding the decay cycle of your food and the different ways you can store it without refrigeration. You’re working against the clock in that not only do you have three hours to feed 100 people, but you have 24 hours before it goes bad.”

While Thaler hoped to open a restaurant called the Gleaner’s Kitchen, which would serve creations made from dumpstered food, a video filmed of him dumpstering for a Kickstarter campaign was picked up by the local media. His landlord found out more about him than he wanted to know and evicted him.

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“I realized I’m a good communicator about these issues, and that I could narrativize this idea in a way that people could relate to it,” he said. Inspired by his Bread and Puppets experience, he said, “That I could take rigidly anti-capitalist rhetoric and turn it into something the mainstream media could digest, is something I’m quite proud of.”

But with this sudden fame, came the eviction. “The vision I had was clouded by my articulation of it, which was very ironic,” he said.

The cookbook is unlike almost any other one on the market, in that rather than sending you to the market in search of ingredients for a recipe, it teaches you what to do with the ingredients you already have.

“It’s about having a relationship with the raw parts of your food, rather than preconceived notions of what food should be,” said Thaler. “There are no recipes. Each page is devoted to a certain ingredient and it has information on how to store it, how to know it’s going bad, the various ways to cook it and what it goes well with, so you can cultivate a relationship with each one and can modularize it to mix and match with different ingredients based on what you have on hand.”

For instance, okra will last over a week in the refrigerator, and in addition to being steamed, stir-fried or boiled, it can be pickled in diluted apple cider vinegar and salt. Other suggestions include pairing it with other delicate green veggies, or in bean stews with tomato and cheese.

Thaler admits he hasn’t been dumpstering since he’s been in the East Bay, mostly because it’s most effective when feeding larger groups. So he didn’t have any tips as to where the best dumpsters are. But for the newbies who want to give it a try, he offers the following tips:

  • Go after midnight, as you don’t want to run into grocery store staff. While dumpstering is legal in some areas, the law gets “fuzzy” in others.
  • Go to health food stores and high-end grocery stores. As Thaler says: “If you’re going to be eating trash, you might as well be eating bougie trash.”
  • Often the larger chains have compactors, which smashes everything together, so find out who compacts their food and who doesn’t.
  • While you do find rotten food in a dumpster, you also find a lot food that isn’t rotten. “People don’t trust their senses anymore,” said Thaler. “Before the FDA came around to tell us what was good and what wasn’t, we had to trust our senses. When people ask me ‘how do you know it’s good?’ I look at it, smell it and use my senses to tell me, I go by empirical evidence. It’s really not that hard once you have an understanding of what good food is.”

Come winter, Thaler is off to London to work on a puppet show about the origin of life.

“There’s a good chance we’ll be dumpstering there,” he said.

“Dumpstering really turned my sense of value on its head, as you get into a dumpster full of price tags, and the value that existed is no longer present,” he said. “It makes you take a step back and ponder what value is in the abstract. Food has value because it builds community and brings us together. Feeding everyone gives me greater joy than just about anything else in my life. What I’m trying to do with my life is create pockets where people are coming together and building community, and puppetry and food are a big part of that.”

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...