I can't remember taking the trash out as a kid — not even once. Our kitchen trash bin just seemed to mysteriously empty itself out into the World Where Trash Goes every day. In reality, it was my dad and my brother taking out the trash, replete with kimchi juice and putrid Lunchables, to our larger waste containers in the side yard every night. I never even thought about it.
After all, in the kitchen, we all had our roles: Mom was Grand Despot, Sultan, and Conqueror; I was a lowly Scullery Cook and Dishwasher (think Daisy in Downton Abbey); Dad was King Waste Disposer and Chief Food Critic; and my brother was the Garbage Can, since he easily consumed most of our leftovers and prevented them from reaching the actual garbage can.
In many families I imagine, but especially in my Korean-American family, taking out the trash has traditionally been a man's job. In my head, it was lumped in there with the other "dirty" jobs — plumbing, mowing the lawn, and whatever it was that happened in the grease space underneath our constantly broken used cars.
So it's funny to me that I've become the Trash Queen at the restaurant I now own in Southern California.
I own the kind of American fast-food joint that, shall we say, values a diversity of menu items, and has since it was established as a Greek diner over 30 years ago. We have a cajillion menu items, so we also collect more kinds of trash than Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout could've ever refused to take out.
Every trash bin needs to be emptied multiple times a day, especially on busy days or hardcore prep days (the prep trash of its eye-watering onion peels and piquant chile seeds, chicken fat trimmings and zucchini ends; the dining room trash of its parade of ketchup-stained wrappers and half-eaten burgers, gnawed-on chilaquiles and unconquerable fries).
In many families I imagine, but especially in my Korean-American family, taking out the trash has traditionally been a man's job.
In the beginning, I made an effort at clothing while working at the restaurant. As the new owner, I should be presentable, I thought. I once wore an actual cardigan to work, along with a sexy gold pair of sneaks. Those days have long since passed. If you wear nice shoes while taking out our trash, expect those shoes to never be the same.
The cauldron of so much fast food creates such a heady, fermented, funky brew at the bottom of a trash bin that if a spot of mystery juice so much as leaks onto a shoe, that shoe will need to be promptly thrown into a bag and quarantined until you can assault it with Downy Botanical Mist or Axe Body Spray or something besides the smell of hot sauce mixed with charbroiled meat juice.
The best uniform for taking out the trash, I've discovered, is non-skid Shoes for Crews paired with long rubber gloves or plastic disposable gloves. And a tetanus shot.
Something funny has happened to me over the months of taking hundreds of bags of putrid trash out to the dumpster behind our restaurant. Like the DC Comics anti-hero Swamp Thing, who got his powers after falling in a swamp and emerging a muscular plant creature, I've gained some serious arm strength and self-empowerment from my swampy new job.
I used to hold my nose and hold the trash away from me while tiptoeing carefully toward the dumpster, but seeing our badass female cook casually grab two bags at a time has made me question my delicate demeanor toward our food waste. Food is a dirty behind-the-scenes job that most customers never see, and someone has got to do it. Why shouldn't that someone be me, regardless of my gender?
Being a woman who does this demanding, smelly job makes me feel even more empowered. Rosie the Riveter would be proud of the millions of women emptying the trash every day at the restaurants they work at, I think to myself as I heave the (hopefully) well-tied Hefties over the lip of the dumpster. I never knew my body could work this hard. I had limitations that in my mind were somehow tied to stereotypical female expectations — limitations our female cook busted wide open for me with her Angela Bassett arms.
Rosie the Riveter would be proud of the millions of women emptying the trash every day at the restaurants they work at, I think to myself.
I'm now also hyperaware of food waste; I wasn't when I just cooked and washed dishes. I see how much people are throwing away every day, and I feel that totality of waste in my arms, my back, and my core every time I pick up a trash bag — these molehills pile up into mountains quickly!
I no longer look at food waste as disgusting stuff to get away from ASAP, but as part of a cycle of decomposition that would hopefully someday re-nourish the earth that grows our veggies. That's why I'm examining whether we can help customers recycle cups and request half-portions of items, and whether we can develop a sensible composting program for our kitchen prep scraps.
Everything that we do has an end result, and in the case of fast food, it's often fast trash. Although it may be an uphill battle, I'm inspired by the food upcycling of chefs like Massimo Bottura to examine how we can limit what goes into those big black trash bags and increase what gets eaten by us.
Until we hit that Maximum Sustainability 10.0, I'll be just another food industry Trash Queen who's proud to do this (very) dirty job.