Annals of Cheap: Pan no mimi
Until about 30 years ago in Japan, foreign food was luxury food, even the humble sandwich. If you bought a sandwich in a restaurant, invariably it would arrive with the crusts cut off. It was more of an aesthetic affectation than a culinary decision, but it shaped the way Japanese people approached shoku pan (white bread). When bread became a staple in school lunches after the war, certain students, presumably the more well-to-do, would leave the crusts. Even today, if you buy a packaged sandwich in a convenience store, more likely than not it won’t have crusts. And if you buy sliced bread in a supermarket or even in a bakery, the ends, or “heels,” are not included, because it’s assumed people don’t want them.
Crusts and heels are categorized as pan no mimi (literally “bread ears”). Some bakeries just throw them in the garbage, but many sell them or even give them away. Homeless people frequent bakeries or bread factories to either ask for the discarded crusts or scrounge through trash bins for them. A lot of people use crusts to feed their pets or the birds that congregate in their gardens. As the recession grinds on and more and more middle-class folks are forced to cut corners, crusts have become more popular. Bakeries tend to have varied reactions to requests for discards, though.
In a chat room discussion on the subject from 2005, one man said he always asks for crusts whenever he goes to a bakery and is often told that the store “is not supposed to sell” them, since they are considered unsanitary for some reason. This might be understandable if the crusts are cut off of prepared sandwiches, since the crusts might be contaminated with mayo, tuna salad or whatever. The man said he started wearing a suit whenever he made a request, obviously thinking the bakeries would be more agreeable, but he said their reaction was the same.
Another participant in the discussion says he called all the bakeries in his vicinity and now regularly collects crusts from two of them, mainly for his dog. He says that “chain” bakeries almost never give away or sell crusts, while “family” bakeries do. If they sell crusts, it’s usually about ¥30 for a 500-gram bag. German-style bakeries often sell crusts as regular merchandise.
Our own research has shown that most bakeries will actually let you have their crusts and heels for free, but you have to ask for them and, normally, you have to buy something else. The most popular use for crusts is bread crumbs, but there are whole websites now dedicated to the use of pan no mimi. The most common recipe is for rusk, which is basically stale bread that’s been reconfigured into a sweet. But you can also use crusts to make doughnuts and bread pudding.
We use crusts for makeshift pizza dough. Throw the crusts in a food processor with flour and some milk or water, let ‘er rip, and then press the concoction into a slightly oiled fry pan until it becomes semi-hard. It won’t rise like real pizza dough, and, depending on the type of bread, it won’t taste like it either. But with tomato sauce, onions, cheese and whatever, it’s a fast and very cheap lunch.