Leftovers

Oh, the joys of leftovers!  The re-warmed stuffing that you can now pour gallons of gravy on!  The cold turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce!  Pie!  Followed by the season of miracle casseroles:  Turkey casserole, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes-and-green-bean casserole, sweet potato-turkey-and-green-bean casserole. And when that runs out, turkey fritters, turkey stew, turkey soup, and turkey bone toothpicks. This is why you need a huge turkey – not for the actual Thanksgiving meal, but to tide you over in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Leftovers are the home chef’s delight and the non-cook’s salvation. If you don’t cook, make sure you get sent home with a container or two of whatever was served so you can pop it in the microwave and not starve. If you are a home chef, you can take stock of the larder, see what fixings are past their shelf-life date and plug them into something that looks strange but tastes great!

Good News/Bad News

Leftovers are an economic boon but an environmental nightmare. Plastic wrap, plastic containers, zip-lock bags of different sizes are all money makers for large corporations and neighborhood sales people. They (the plastics, not the neighbors) are sources of pollution that contribute to environmental decay and cause harm to wildlife across the globe.

There is also an inherent danger in leftovers, harboring as they do, microbes, bacteria, and other substances. If not properly stored and re-heated, they can wreak havoc on our metabolism and immune system. To correct for that possibility, refrigeration and over cooking have become primary tools to make sure we are eating safely. Still, there is no guarantee that your leftovers will not be tainted, if only because you have overlooked some aspect of their proper care and storage. Of course, you could just throw the stuff out.

The Joys of Cooking

I grew up in the cost-conscious 1950s. My mother and grandmother each got recipes from The Joy of Cooking (a Bible in my kitchen), and Ladies Home Journal (boxes of clippings of recipes from this publication), not to mention various church and school fundraiser publications. They made economic meals that came not out of lack, but out of a Midwestern pride of “Waste not! Want not!”  My maternal grandmother was a gifted home cook, and my mother, (who did not enjoy cooking in the same way her mother did), could put on a spectacular meal, worthy of her time spent at Le Cordon Bleu.

I was the beneficiary of these talents, and offered my increasingly refined palette as a taste tester for all kinds of goodies, including left-overs. The rituals and routines around the remaking of food in order to extend its usefulness ranged from creating creamy concoctions out of a simple roux (influenced by Le Cordon Bleu training of making a “basic white sauce”) to a more mundane presentation of “porcupine balls” (hamburger and rice, simmered in tomato sauce).

There is, however, a consequence for having developed these gifts. Aside from the excess avoirdupois that I carry around, I have also acquired a dislike of leftovers. This has created neurotic conversations in my head and a deep sense of self-loathing and guilt whenever I toss food.

History of Leftovers

When looked at from a historic perspective, leftovers turn out to be ever so much more than just, well leftovers. Michigan State University assistant professor, Helen Zoe Veit (http://www.helenveit.com/) wrote a beautiful piece in The Atlantic back in 2015 about this. Turns out that when the economy is good and people have access to refrigeration, there is less inclination to carefully preserving and extending the meal, and a greater likelihood that whatever is leftover just gets tossed.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest food wastes of the year. It has become a ritual of caloric indulgence. Of course it is not the holiday alone that is to blame. We have become a nation of tossers rather than savers.

The irony here, of course, should not be lost on us. We are living in a time of extraordinary abundance, yet many of our fellow citizens are experiencing food insufficiency (the fancy phrase for hunger) or living in food deserts where access to the basics depends on how far you have to go to get your food and how you can keep it fresh until you eat it.

Memory Banks and Food Banks

So much was different this Thanksgiving. I am a widow and have no children of my own, so I did not make a big meal of turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, or pumpkin pie. Instead, I cooked a lovely Cornish Game Hen, stuffed it with rice, macerated raisins, and pine nuts. I had a a side of sweet potatoes all gussied up with sour cream and maple syrup. My plate was topped off with a piquant and festive looking cranberry chutney made by a friend. This was way more than I could eat at one sitting, so I had left overs! I successfully withstood the generational pull to putting them all together in a casserole, and instead, had a second meal, just like the first the following day.

This year, because of COVID, I did not participate in volunteering to distribute meals or assisting in the cooking of meals for folks, a tradition my husband and I had kept for all the years we were married. It is not lost on me that more and more of us are now needing to have these meals provided. The lines were long at our local food bank. Television news made note of just how many Americans were struggling to put food on their tables.

Moral Food

Perhaps many of you share the confounding memory of being told to eat everything on your plate because there were children starving in some country. I did not see the benefit of sending my unwanted liver and onions to a child who was hungry somewhere around the world. It was clear to me that no child would want leftover liver and onions, no matter how hungry they were. But it was a seemingly irrefutable argument from my parent’s perspective. So I ate the food on my plate.

There is historical evidence for this indoctrination of generosity and moral actions around food. If you want a good read that will leave you feeling sated in lots of ways, I encourage you to get a copy of Helen Zoe Veit’s book, “Modern Food, Moral Food”. It explains a lot about how we have arrived at this point in our history. And the only left overs will be food for thought in how we are going to address the disparities that remain.

For those of you who do have left overs, I trust you will store them properly and enjoy them in whatever form they may take.

2 comments

  1. My mother didn’t believe in leftovers, but I love them, especially Thanksgiving leftovers! But I do cringe every time I am forced to discard some leftovers that have been lost in the back of the refrigerator. Here in Kentucky, one in six are food insecure, and so I try to be mindful of what I eat and what gets discarded. Those “starving children in China” that my parents talked about to encourage us to be members of the “clean plate club” are our neighbors. So sad in this country of plenty.

  2. great writing mary-this year our hungry need our help as the fed help does not seem to be arriving-the boston food bank suspended volunteers due to covid, and albany has picked up an extra daily refrigerated trailer to sort and disperse as we still have a dedicated volunteer core-we have gleaned apples from one of our orchards for a week now-truly great folk out there. why our country still pays farmers not to produce is beyond me-there is a need somewhere daily. i am not ready for the hens yet-though your tater combo seems appealing. maybe some other items for the next feast?

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