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The Green Life: You Think Saving the Planet Is Funny?

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April 25, 2008

You Think Saving the Planet Is Funny?


Finger-Lickin' Good Exhaust

Doug Fine grew up on Domino’s Pizza in New York City’s suburbs, traveled the world as a journalist, and at age 36 plopped down on a ragged New Mexico ranch to live more environmentally. That meant raising much of his own food, cutting back on electricity, and ditching his beloved Subaru for a truck that runs on vegetable oil. This excerpt from his new book, Farewell, My Subaru, follows his efforts to find sources of alternative fuel.

I never imagined waste oil would be such a scarce commodity--not when you consider that the default ingredient in the "diabetes capital of the world" is essentially grease. Traditional New Mexican food is delicious specifically because it is 39 variations of fried corn. This is a cuisine so greasy that the primary protein source for generations has been refried beans.

I steeled my belly and considered it my obligation to test every "diabetes factory" in southwest New Mexico, and regularly. On every town trip, I piled plates full of chiles rellenos, deep-fried enchiladas (in green chili sauce), and sopaipillas. I started to hear "Plate's hot, sweetie" in my sleep. The way New Mexico small-town culture works, I'd have to eat at local hangouts Mi Casita and El Paisano for several years, and possibly get engaged to one or two of the owner's nieces, before I could discuss the bizarre issue of poaching in the dumpster yard. On the bright side, with each town trip I was satisfying my USDA requirements in most of the major fat categories for an entire month.

But just when I was starting to notice genuine health effects from this fruitless grease search (I had gained eight pounds since the conversion), I finally I got the call from Sisters Restaurant. Right in my valley. I could practically smell their food from the Funky Butte Ranch. I knew my hound Sadie could. Best Reuben sandwiches west of the Mississippi.

"We've got six gallons of prime grease for you," Sister Rita said. Other calls soon followed.

KFC corporate headquarters announced it was moving to nonhydrogenated oil the same week that Rita's summons came, and their Silver City manager said I could come haul as much of their fryer waste as I wanted.

It had been decades since I had visited a KFC--I had no idea they offered apple turnovers these days. I pulled up in front of the Colonel's portrait and a security camera, found the dumpster and grease-trap area, and before I had finished setting up my special pump, an employee wearing a do-rag approached, carrying an armload of garbage bags. I had on latex gloves and had driven a huge truck to a staff-only area. I looked more like an esoteric pervert than a thief.

Before he could say anything, I blurted guiltily, "Christie said I could take your waste oil off your hands."

He looked at me as if I'd said, "I have an imaginary friend named Snuffleupagus."

"What for?"

"I'm gonna drive on it."

He watched my pump suck the sickly ooze into a five-gallon container.

"Do you just pour it right in your tank?"

"I have sort of a laboratory back home, in my barn. It's pretty easy, though."

"And then all your gas is free? That . . . rules. Where do I get one?"

But that was only the start. While I was filling up, no fewer than eight KFC employees gathered around, alone or in clusters, marveling at someone driving on vegetable oil. It was like a tent revival. I found myself giving a sermon about things like carbon neutrality and oil company profits. I couldn't help it--the audience was rapt. Two guys in aprons asked me to take their picture near the grease trap. And to think that a year earlier I hadn't even heard of a vegetable-oil-powered car. Just 15 years before that, I actually ate at KFC. If my recent exhaust fumes were any indication, I'd soon be drawn, against my will, to eat there again. Sure hope that universal-healthcare-coverage legislation moves forward.

This article is excerpted from Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living by Doug Fine (Villard, 2008). A blog on the low-carbon misadventures at the Funky Butte Ranch can be found at dougfine.com.

Illustration by Tim Bower; used with permission.


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