Many of my posts begin with “When I was young,” and this post was going to begin the same way until I caught myself! Now, then: when I was young, I was perhaps unreasonably annoyed by my mom’s habit of saving leftovers and using food that my sister and I deemed unfit for human consumption. “Chemically, it’s the same thing,” my mom would say, inspecting a head of lettuce with browning outer leaves, or a banana that had gone from yellow to goldenrod to brown to beyond. That became one of our family catchphrases: “Chemically, it’s the same thing.” Broken cookie? Eat it! Chemically, it’s the same thing! Burnt toast? Well, you can guess what my mom would have told you. (Note: I think, at least, in the toast case, the burnt variety is not chemically identical to its properly cooked cousin, but that’s another argument.)
My mom was equally tenacious about the saving and reuse of leftover food. After dinner, she’d package whatever we hadn’t eaten — never mind that the peas left in the steamer weren’t enough for a full serving — and find a place for it in our overstuffed fridge. Certain leftovers (pizza, steamed carrots, pasta sauce) held up well enough to make a decent second meal, but others (mashed potatoes, hamburger, the pasta itself) did not. When I tried to explain to my mother the Leftovers Hierarchy I’d created, a list I’d prepared of foods that were OK to eat after their initial serving, she’d hear none of it.
Yes, I was a fussy child. Now that I’m buying my own groceries with my own hard-earned money (is that spiel familiar?), I’m less apt to turn my nose up at the reintegration of leftovers. While in grad school, I had my ass saved, on more than one occasion, by dishes that would last a week in the fridge: that were hearty, cheap, and nutritious. No longer did I snub the snippets of bread, the remainder of a broccoli crown! Things change when you start paying your own bills: that is the God’s honest truth.
A few weeks ago, I came across this blog post by Tara Parker-Pope calling attention to the tremendous food wastage that takes place in our country and urging consumers to be more mindful about what they buy/more diligent about using what’s on hand. The author’s message resonated with me, and not just because it conjured reminiscences of childhood “leftovers day.” I wish I could say that I’m not part of the 93 percent of people surveyed in a Cornell Food and Brand Lab Study who admit to buying food that they never use, but guess what? Try as I might, I inevitably throw away, during my weekly fridge cleanings, the dry ends of cheese bricks, wilty cilantro, berries darkening and blanketed in mold.
Mind you, I’ve gotten better about buying what I need, what I think that Hook and I can reasonably use in a week. I used to be a prime Produce Waster, allowing the allure of fresh Pink Ladies and personal watermelons and bright heads of cabbage to overtake my rational thought process and cause me to buy waaaaaaay more than I can eat. I’ve actually implemented a plan to eat what produce I have on hand, even if I’m craving something else, just to avoid letting good veggies spoil. Still, despite my efforts, I end up tossing a lot of food.
With Thanksgiving less than a week away and the new year right around the corner, I’d like to posit a challenge. I’d like to challenge myself (and you, if you’re into this idea) to craft at least three meals a week entirely from leftovers, preferably leftovers on their way out. I follow this practice already, in a drifting, unregimented way, but I feel like if I dedicate myself to the creative use of leftovers, that 1) the results of my cooking projects may become more creative/appetizing; and 2) I may produce even less food waste than I do now.
So who’s with me? Who’s willing to examine their food purchasing and preparation practices and try to cut down, this holiday season, on wasting food? I’m envisioning a room full of people raising their hands with vigor, and I hope one of those outstretched arms is yours.