Losing Leftovers

It’s so cliché to talk about how much harder life was when we were young, isn’t it?

Most of us grew up hearing how our parents walked five miles to school in sub-zero temperatures, with hot coals in their pockets, and now we tell our kids how we were forced to clean our plates at dinner.

“There are starving children in Africa!” my mom would claim if any of us dared leave food on the plate.

leftoversI learned to sit by my father when Lima beans were on the menu. He was always happy to steal the green horrors from my plate when Mom wasn’t looking.

And, like most kids, I perfected the full-mouthed escape to the bathroom, where I would subtly spit offensive food into the toilet. Friends tell of wrapping ABC (already-been-chewed) meat in their napkins or stuffing it into floorboard-radiators.

Even so, we got the point: food was not to be wasted.

On occasional Sunday nights, my ever-resourceful, Depression-era mother of six would set up a “buffet” to entice us to eat leftovers. Sure, she would add some salad and freshly boiled eggs, but the rest was a selection of “re-purposed” dishes from the prior week.

She saved ham bones for split-pea soup, made turkey tetrazzini after Thanksgiving (I ate it for the name alone) and excelled at casseroles.

Times have changed. Like my mom, I salvage the scraps from every meal, package them in Tupperware and stash them in the refrigerator. If it’s chili, minestrone, pasta sauce or lasagna, I can serve it for a second supper. Sometimes, I can get a teen to eat leftovers for a late-night snack or weekend lunch.

However, more often than not, I cram the fridge with leftovers, and when I can’t find any more space, I start sending the food down the garbage disposal.

I feel horribly guilty every time I do so.

Many years ago, when I offered to help a neighbor box up the extra food following a dinner party, she laughed,  “Are you kidding? My husband does not DO leftovers.”

It turns out he had grown up in a family that was just scraping by, so re-heated table scraps were de rigueur. Now, as a successful lawyer, he has determined that leftovers are for paupers, and his wife gladly obliges…without an ounce of guilt. I’m envious.

I just can’t get past the idea of throwing away perfectly good food, and I know I’m not alone. Some of our best dishes were actually designed to re-use overstock. Pizza was created to utilize pre-cooked meat and veggies. Stew makes use of old meat, carrots, onions and potatoes. And the French invented “French toast” (they call “pain perdu,” or lost bread) to salvage stale bread.

In fact, some of the best kitchen staples were designed to help us save, protect and serve leftovers; among the most important are refrigerators (1920s and 30s), Earl S. Tupper’s food containers (1940s), Saran Wrap (1953), Ziploc bags (1968) and microwave ovens (1970s).

A full plate of cookbooks exist to inspire us to re-use and re-heat; available titles include “Use it Up Cookbook: Creative Recipes for the Frugal Cook,” “The Thrifty Cookbook: 476 Ways to Eat Well With Leftovers” and “31 Leftover Ham Recipes.”

Of course, what would Thanksgiving be without leftovers? Hosts make extra food on purpose, because half the fun of is dipping into the leftover turkey, candied yams and green-been casserole a few hours after the big meal, and again the following day.

And, who hasn’t eaten cold pizza the morning after a great slumber party or late-night gathering? The hair of the dog can’t hold a candle to pizza’s curative powers.

However, some foods just don’t stand up to a second showing.

So many times my kids have brought home “doggy bags” after an expensive, but half-eaten meal, promising to finish the food the next day. More often than not, I’m tossing out cartons of Thai food the following weekend, or trying to locate the pungent smell in the back seat of the car several days later.

I get it.

For instance, as delicious as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese tastes straight from the stove, I have never found a suitable way to serve it a second time. I try adding a little milk, heating it in the microwave and stirring it, but my kids can tell it isn’t fresh. I know the difference, too. And yet, every time I have a little left over, I pack it in a clear plastic box and send it to the cooler.

Perhaps it’s not just about the waste and the song-and-dance involved in boxing up food I know won’t get eaten. Maybe leftovers just help us hold memories of good meals shared with loved ones. Or, they remind us of a successful turn in the kitchen. And then again, it could just be the internal recording of our mothers, telling us about all those starving children…

– Linda Williams Rorem, 4 Feb. 2013
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  1. Carolyn Brandt Broughton says:

    I always thought ‘Fine, then let’s wrap it up and send it to the children of Africa or India — see if THEY want to eat it.’ : )

  2. Diane Rosewall says:

    Depression child of a family of six..I the youngest.. find it truly HARD to throw away stuff Hence my kids no doubt look askance at anything they can’t identify!!!!


  3. Carrie Lovsted says:

    Now I know to add hard boil eggs to left over night! I think it keeps my kids grounded to have leftover night. They are welcome to make something different if they choose!
    Left over night does bring back great childhood table memories!

    • Yes – leftover night does bring back memories and it’s good to hear you are still keeping up the tradition, Carrie. I think my mom’s calling it “buffet” made it sound special. I should probably try that with my kids!

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