A good night’s haul: baked goods saved from Seattle dumpsters

It was 8:30 p.m. on a recent Sunday when it clicked. I was standing on a dark sidewalk outside of a donut shop — the donut part is key — getting ready to venture into my third dumpster of the evening, when I at last saw diving for the brilliant enterprise it is. And I owe it all to an unassuming black trash bag.

As you well know if you read my last column, I didn’t quite get the hang of the whole diving thing at first. I was actually kinda repulsed by the idea of picking through sodden food refuse in back alleys, even if it meant rescuing perfectly good eats going to waste in commercial trash bins for superficial reasons. But I appealed to you, dear readers, for help, and then I picked myself up for another go.

I’ve come up successful on four dumpster dives now. I’ll get back to that donut shop in a minute, but first, the tales of other dumpsters I’ve known, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

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Lesson No. 1: Choose the right dumpster.

After my first few attempts came up empty, I realized that more precise targeting was in order. You want prolific dumpsters known for their abundant spoils. And if you’re new to the dive, you’ll want to stick to stores that don’t traffic in anything too wet. (Seriously. That gets nasty.) Think carbs. You want bread, muffins, rolls — the gateway drugs of dumpster food.

So, with my trusty lookout and boyfriend, Ted, in tow, I headed to an industrial district that is home to two wholesale bakery warehouses. Both generate rave reviews among in-the-know freegans. The first dumpster sat down a long, dark alley, far from prying eyes. Perfect.

We lifted the dumpster’s lid and peeked in to find five or six trash bags. They weren’t brimming with obvious treats, but neither were they overtly disgusting. And here I employed one of the key tactics that several of you suggested: the Get Over Yourself, Crybaby tactic. (Thanks, guys!) I took a deep breath, adjusted my headlamp, and vaulted inside.

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“It’s not so bad,” I told Ted as he helpfully directed the light from his iPhone into the depths. I grabbed the closest bag and began to rummage. Lo and behold … “This thing is full of cookies!”

I held one of them — a luscious macaroon dipped in chocolate — out for inspection. It was still squishy with freshness. I scooped four from the bag (there were dozens, but dumpster etiquette frowns upon hogging the goods) and piled them in Ted’s outstretched hands.

“Nice,” he said.

Lesson No. 2: Go hungry.

You know how they tell you never to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, lest you stuff your cart full of id foods (you know, Mallomars, bacon, corn dogs)? It’s the opposite with diving. Work up a nice drool ahead of time, and any impediments to success will melt away.

Our second bakery site was far more exposed, with the dumpsters lined up in a well-lit garage and several employees puttering around next door. A handmade “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” sign decorated the bin labeled “Bread Dumpster.” But the sweet smells of olive loaf registering on our rumbling stomachs drew us in, eyewitnesses and health warnings be damned.

Oh man. Oh man. The clean, dry bin was positively stuffed with pillowy loaves, placed lovingly inside without the hindrance of trash bags. I reached down to poke one. Still soft. Jumping in would put me knee-deep in artisan bread, but no need; someone had placed a concrete stepping stone next to the dumpster’s deep end.

“How about that one?” Ted asked, pointing to a long loaf of French bread. He’d been less than excited to accompany me yet again, but did I detect him licking his lips ever so slightly now? I picked it up, only to spot a human-shaped bite mark. Undeterred, I reached for an unmarked loaf and handed it to Ted.

“Mmm. Sourdough,” he said, sniffing.

Lesson No. 3: Be flexible.

A dumpster is like a box of chocolates (albeit more slimy) — you’re never sure what you’re going to get. Ted and I approached another conquest, a bin outside a grocery that specializes in produce, with an open mind. Would it be discolored squash? Mildly wilted arugula?

Tonight, the dumpster’s gifts were a pile of Roma tomatoes and several soft avocados. I jumped in and selected the best avocado, several still-firm tomatoes, and a bonus lime with a weird splotch on its rind that I found under a piece of cardboard.

The dumpster gods had spoken, and they said garbage guacamole.

Lesson No. 4: Donuts.

Back to that black trash bag behind the donut shop, sitting provocatively on top of the dumpster lid. “Wouldn’t it be great if that were full of donuts?” Ted asked. “Then you wouldn’t even have to get in the dumpster.”

Yeah, right, I thought. But then we opened the bag.

It was full of donuts.

Clean, fresh, same-day donuts. Apple fritters and glazed long johns. Chocolate-sprinkled and pink coconut-frosted. Nothing else in there but sweet, handmade donuts.

I ask you now to look inside yourself and answer this question: If confronted with an entire garbage bag full of free donuts, would you, could you, walk away? I’ll venture that even the most squeamish among us would fall under the spell. I did.

So did my reluctant partner. “If I ever have to get treats for a kid’s soccer team, I’m totally coming up here the night before,” Ted said as we left clutching a kingly ransom in donuts. “I’ll take the whole bag.”

And then he took a big bite of an apple fritter straight from the trash.

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