Dumpster Diving Delicacies
Let's start by acknowledging that I’m a foodie and an oenophile. My earliest childhood memories revolve around food. My love of beef tartare dates back to when I wasn’t even tall enough to see the kitchen counter. I would scurry into the kitchen in footsie pajamas, silently stealing pieces of fresh-cut raw beef my mother was preparing for a stew, watching her delightfully from a distance as she looked bewildered at her dwindling pile while the meat juices dripped slowly off my chin. When I was a bit older — but still needing to sit on restaurant phone books, mind you — I managed to make a reservation at 21 Club during a trip to New York and insisted my mother take us there for lunch. If you’re at all familiar with ‘21’, it was iconic — one of the most famed speakeasies of the prohibition era with an award-winning wine cellar and a star-studded ninety-year history — and not exactly the type of place to bring children. But I happily sat there on my stack of phone books and didn’t hesitate to send back the raw oysters on the half shell for the cooked dish, Oysters Rockefeller. I didn’t appreciate the live and squigglies at the time, but I didn’t know what I was missing yet.
Fast forward to after my parents' divorce. My mom and I went from top shelf to top ramen in an instant. When I’d visit my father’s house in the Beverly Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles — literally Bel Air adjacent — we’d dine at places like Sushi-ko, a celebrity hot spot owned by Vanna White where you paid a premium for the chance to get snapped by the paparazzi and end up blurred out on the cover of the National Enquirer. Back at my mom’s, we didn’t even have a fridge for almost a year. In the hot LA summers, when we could afford to order a pizza, I had to finish every slice and piece of crust or see it covered in cockroaches before morning. Getting three items from the value menu at Jack-in-the-Box suddenly became a luxury. I sometimes wonder if my mom forcing me to lay out by the pool, slathering myself with Hawaiian Tropic, and encouraging me to diet and ‘watch my figure’ was a secret ploy not to have to buy groceries.
My relationship with food changed again during my time on the road — aka that year I ran away and lived on the streets. But that doesn’t sound as romantic as a Kerouac reference, now does it? While I gained a significant amount of autonomy living outside of conventional norms, there was an immense sacrifice of agency that may seem insignificant to people that never experienced homelessness. Granted, street folx and runaways don’t often get to choose where they sleep or when they sleep, and I was ready for that challenge. However, I wasn't prepared for the type of powerless hunger I was in for or the lack of humanity I felt daily. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more dehumanizing than getting someone’s leftovers when they’re acting all saintly as if it’s a personal sacrifice to give you a half-chewed piece of chicken or noodles that were bitten off midway. I’d also rather wake up in the middle of the night starving, shivering, and weak from hunger than eat a tuna sandwich. Not happening. Period. But there were also the days when the sun was shining, people were sharing, and the food was pretty darn good.
One of my favorite places for fantastic food was Zona Rosa Burrito in The Haight, about a block from Golden Gate Park. This was a great spot to panhandle, but you had to get there early before lunch, or it would be occupied by someone else in the know. There is street etiquette to panhandling spaces. You can’t just sidle up next to someone that’s already in a prime spot unless you bring something of value to the table, like youth and boobs. Boobs bring burritos better. It’s a fact. So I could often sweet talk my way into the area since most people feel sorry for a young runaway girl more than they do for disabled vets. The burritos at Zona Rosa were mission style, which means the tortillas were giant, and they’d roll them up tight like a swaddled baby. The filling consisted of seasoned rice, whole beans, a meat choice — like slow-roasted pork carnitas or grilled carne asada — and spicy or tangy salsa, either pico de gallo, chipotle or salsa verde. And if you ordered a super, it came with cheese, sour cream, and guac.
You know your mouth is watering for one of these burritos right now. And you’re not standing outside in the cold watching the hordes of customers snarfing them down like an afterthought or walking past you with to-go bags in hand and no eye contact. Brutal. But more often than not, panhandling outside of a food place meant more success because the assumption was you actually wanted food. Some people gave you a buck to add to your pile of burrito funds. Then there were the folx that never give cash to street people but will gladly give them food. There were the yoga babes who’d say they couldn’t possibly eat a whole burrito to themselves and offer to have it cut in half. They’d sometimes even ask if what they were ordering was alright. And every once in a while, someone would come along and actually ask you what you wanted and maybe even throw in a drink or a side of chips and guac. If I believed in heaven, I’d give a special section to those folx.
Another favorite place for choice homeless eats was the KFC in Eugene, Oregon. I’m not exactly sure what The Colonel’s corporate policy was for throwing away food at the end of the night, but word traveled through the grapevine that this particular KFC did it the right way. This location would throw away all of the leftover chicken at the end of the shift in one bag without any other food or trash in the bag. The same went for the biscuits and sides. They separated them all out. And they didn’t lock their dumpster. So if you got there early enough — and were willing to share or to fight — you could have a dinner of untainted fried chicken and biscuits that was usually still warm. You just had to be willing to climb inside of an otherwise sticky dumpster to get it. It only took a couple of times to figure out we could go inside before closing and grab butter, honey, dipping sauces, utensils, and handiwipes without buying any food. And nothing said high class like washing it down with what was known as a Shake-Me-Up — a combination of MD 20/20 aka “Mad Dog” and a packet of grape Kool-Aid.
It’s been at least a decade since I’ve gone back to Zona Rosa, but I can still remember how delicious those burritos were. The chicken was tender with a hint of lime and a touch of cumin, the beans were creamy and soft, and the salsa verde had just enough jalapeno kick to the tomatillo base to keep you coming back for more. If I close my eyes, I can still taste it. For years I avoided KFC altogether. Maybe my subconscious memories of standing in a trash can created an aversion for those eleven herbs and spices. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve flown to New Orleans for the quality fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House — soaked in spicy buttermilk and fried so crispy the skin literally disintegrates in your mouth. Compared to that, KFC is a major letdown. Foodie or not, on those cold nights in October, when I was fifteen and starving, KFC might as well have been a Michelin star meal.