FORMAL CONSTRAINTS in poetry can force an artist toward greatness. The act of creation under limitation lies somewhere between pressure cooking and trash compacting. If you get off on form, then you may enjoy the "what's in the fridge" puzzle of food bank cooking.

People react to the use of such services with shame, but why not celebrate the efficiency of food banks? We're using up the overripe surplus that would be chucked into trash cans. The wise and intelligent are using the food bank. I once witnessed a group of eight African American men load up their truck with fresh produce and bread from a food bank. We were all picking through boxes of fancy bell peppers, Swiss chard, Larry's Market baked goods--every item teetering on the cusp of rottenness--and these men were getting happy. So happy that they started singing at top volume in the parking lot of the church. Others gathered around and joined their voices, until so many people were singing so triumphantly, the song dissolved into shouts of "Hallelujah!" and "Praise God!" As the racket grew, the men became further impassioned, jumping up and down as they cried, "Thank you Lord!"

Ebullient myself, I discovered mountains of those salad-in-a-bag mixes and craisen scones. I went home and gave bread to my neighbors, cooked up a mighty vegetable curry, and started planning.

Food bank handouts vary immensely from week to week and location to location. Due to an increase of pre-packaged fresh foods in supermarkets, the quality and variety of foods available has improved dramatically. Some banks simply hand out a bag of food, like El Centro de la Raza; others let you select what you want. Family Works offers cooking classes by local culinary professionals. King County Labor Agency supplies food for union members; Jewish Family Services offers kosher food; University District Food Bank feeds students. A few programs distribute at St. Mary's Church.

I prefer food banks that let me pick out what I want, because it's easier to actually use the stuff. Folks with tight food budgets deserve culinary delight just as much as the next guy. The key to organizing handouts is early detection. Examine produce for bruises or holes--telltale signs of quick-rotters. Those vegetables are the first to go. Age affects the taste of a vegetable; plan dishes accordingly. Stews, stocks, and soups are where all the elderly produce goes toward the end of the week. In fact, older things make stew taste better. For example, a young chicken is no good for soup. The long process of stewing softens up tough old birds and chewier (less fatty) cuts of meat, and age allows animals and vegetables more flavor. Heartier vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips, and other robust root vegetables should be saved for later.

Delicate tomatoes, sweet peppers, and lettuces should be eaten right away; slice them for sandwiches or raw salads. As the week wears on the freshness of these, they will need to be treated more aggressively. Sautéing and other methods of quick cooking (blanching, steaming) require the freshest ingredients, so the method of preparation will need to be adjusted to suit less-than-young ingredients.

There is, of course, soup--but don't throw everything in. Plan and match complementing flavors. Consult cookbooks and grandmothers. Fanny Farmer and The Joy of Cooking have easy recipes from which to build a food bank sensation. Generally geared toward the economically minded, they provide basic guidelines as to what goes with what (do not put members of the cruciferous family--broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage--in stock. They contain sulforaphane, i.e., they stink. Lack cream? Thicken soups with pureed potatoes). For spice guidance, I consult more evolved culinary cultures. India, China, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia offer inspiration from long histories of cooking with subsistence-type foods, dietary restrictions, and vegetarianism.

Right now, I'm dunking rich Italian bread into cream of broccoli soup, waiting for my chard-strewn Spanish rice to finish cooking. Tomorrow I'll make fiery ginger-carrot soup and fry up some zucchini pancakes. Free can be so delicious.

Seattle/King County Food Bank Resource Directory:

www.cityofseattle.net, or community info line at

461-3200.