Saturday, May 20, 2017

Slop Machines

In The Waste Makers, his 1960 history of American consumerism for consumerism’s sake, author Vance Packard describes a satirical city of the future. It’s a place of planned obsolescence, where papier-mache houses are torn down and rebuilt every other year, plastic automobiles melt if they’re driven more than 4,000 miles, and factories are constructed on the edges of cliffs, so that conveyor belts can simply dump excess consumer goods into the abyss without slowing down the economic engine of production itself. Packard calls his mock-utopia “Cornucopia City.” If America possesses a non-imagined model for Cornucopia City, it’s Las Vegas. A horn of plenty that’s half-metropolis, half-amusement park, where excess is an edict, from bottomless booze bongs to endless buffets, it is our crapulent capital of abundance.

At a proper Vegas buffet, like the 25,000-square-foot Bacchanal at Caesars Palace, or The Buffet at the Wynn, the steam tables and hot lamps and carving stations stretch out toward infinity and you can eat prime rib, oak-grilled lamb chops, South Carolina shrimp and grits, roasted bone marrow, angry mac ‘n’ cheese, lobster tails, baked-to-order souffles, made-to-order cognac-and-Boursin omelets, breakfast tacos, fish sliders, barbecue chicken pizza, filet mignon, Peking duck rolls, mashed potatoes, waffle cone chicken and fries, cookies, cakes, pies, crème brulees, assorted fudges and barks, and, sure, even some fresh fruit, until your guts explode, all for one flat fee.

When you get up to reload your plate or duckwalk to the toilet, your sullied china, littered with rib bones and crustacean carcasses, will disappear as if by magic, plate after plate after plate. The handling of the leftovers is so efficient and elegant that you don’t even get to think about where they go. That’s by design. It’s like the old joke: In the fevered throes of a swinging sexual reverie, a man turns to someone and whispers in their ear, “What are you doing after the orgy?” Squirming in the sticky spasms of rhapsodic pleasure, we’re not meant to think about what comes after. In the case of your leftovers, the “after,” it turns out, is inside the belly of a hog.

Sin City bleeds away about a dozen miles north of the Strip, past the factory outlet malls and “locals-only” casinos and quarries and high school gymnasiums boasting “RATTLER PRIDE,” where everything starts looking more and more like a parched parcel of the American heartland. The snowcapped mountains on the northern horizon insist upon this being a real place, like pretty much any other, emerging out of and folding back into nature. The cling and clang of casino gambling floors and the howls of rowdy bachelorette parties are replaced by the chirpy songs of native Nevada birds. Then there’s the smell: the piquant pong of hot garbage and porcine excrement that wafts downwind. Yes, that’s the aroma of the real Las Vegas.

In September 2009, the funk was so aggressive that it became the subject of a lawsuit. Local homeowners, recently moved into a then-new housing development, complained that the builders hadn’t fully disclosed that the area was suffused with the reek. The suit charged that the smell was so bad that new owners couldn't even be in their homes “without gagging.” Neighbors would hang up those strips of gluey flypaper, only to find them completely full just a few days later, mottled with flies drawn to garbage perfume. The source of this great odor was R.C. Farms, a North Vegas hog farm, overseen by veteran agriculturalist Bob Combs since the 1960s — and the final destination for the literal tons of wasted food that is produced every day at casinos up and down the Strip. (...)

Since it opened in April 1963, R.C. Farms has had a very particular relationship with the overflowing decadence of nearby Las Vegas. At the time, the Combs family operated a modest hog farm in Chula Vista, near San Diego. They established relationships with a local army base, collecting food scraps to be reused as pig feed. Every year the base would contract out the privilege of collecting their wasted food to the highest bidder, with a few local farmers vying for the deal. But in Vegas, tens of thousands of pounds of food were going to waste. “My dad came here to Vegas for his 70th birthday, to have little gambling vacation,” Combs said as we sat at the round kitchen table of his modest bungalow farmhouse. On that auspicious trip, Combs’s father wandered through a backdoor of the now-long-gone Navajo-themed Thunderbird Hotel, and he came upon a huge container full of food being thrown away — the same sort of stuff he was bidding on back in La Mesa.

Combs told me the story with a well-practiced, raconteur’s confidence. It’s a tale he’s likely told a hundred times before, slowly metastasizing with each telling into a bona fide legend: Imagine Jed Clampett happening across oil in his fetid swamp, except that the treasure is something that was being chucked away. Where the casinos saw only untouched shrimp cocktails and half-nibbled slabs of heat-lamp-warmed prime rib, the older Combs saw profit. He leased 150 acres north of the Strip, at the dead end of a dirt road, and installed his son to run the place. The young Bob (affectionately known as “Goof” to his family) arranged deals with several of the old-school casinos — the Desert Inn, the Stardust, the Sands, the Flamingo, the Sahara, the Tropicana, Caesars, the Riviera, and other locals-only joints. The business model was simple: collect buffet food scraps, reprocess them as feed, fatten hogs, send them off to slaughter. (...)

Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”

by John Semley, Eater | Read more:
Image:Natalie Nelson; photos by PictureNet / Corbis, Getty Images, and Shutterstock