In a Star Trek Voyager episode, two members of the crew (lieutenant Tom Paris and ensign Harry Kim for Trekkies out there) are captives in an alien penal colony where the every-man-for-himself rule reigns strong. They are hungry and clinging to every shred of hope to be rescued. In an effort to support his comrade through a moment of despair, Paris invites him to visualize their first freedom meal: a classic steak and potatoes delight, 24th century style, no less.
They were not talking about leftovers, but the image if most fitting to our theme. There is true reassurance in knowing that a satisfying meal is assured. There is a sure sense of abundance in the ability to store enough food to supply nourishment for more than one meal, and for midnight snacks on top of that.
Leftovers used to be frowned upon, not because of any strong feelings about waste, but rather because they were reserved for the poor. This was especially true in Medieval Europe, where the wealthy gave food waste and leftovers to their servants and to the neighborhood poor. It is from this practice that we get many dishes we hold dear today, across economic classes. French toast is a prime example.
Servants, slaves and the poor have long turned common foods to special treats by combining simple ingredients at hand. In time, these creative recipes were shared. According to the Food Timeline, “In the mid-19th century, leftovers were elevated to the level of creative cookery. Entire cookbooks were written in praise of leftovers and the creative housewives who served them with panache.”
The true leftover revolution takes place 100 years later. Before widely available refrigeration, the time window to consume discarded or leftover foods was still limited. The Ice box of the 19th century helped, but the saving grace for extending the life and use of food was, of course, the refrigerator. In America, it entered the family home in the nick of time, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stretching food was a necessary art then.
Plastic was another saving grace for low-income families. The name Earl S. Tupper comes to mind and surely rings a bell with every reader. He invented the first plastic food sealing containers in the 1940s. It is interesting to note that the initial intention was not aimed directly at facilitating the storage of leftovers for convenience’s sake, but rather at sealing refrigerated foods to help reduce fridge odors.
Electricity was the leftover’s next best friend. “It wasn’t until 1960 that electricity and a refrigerator could be found in the majority of American homes. There’s an impulse, with all the possibility of refrigeration, to buy more, and in turn, waste more. But there’s also the opposite impulse; suddenly we can preserve things.” -Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation.
Innovation gifts us with the microwave about ten years later, and “reheating” enters the vocabulary of the leftover menu like never before.
There are at least three sides to leftovers: Necessity, frugality and pleasure.
Will we emerge from our spring-summer 2020 seclusion fed up with leftovers or inspired for having been reacquainted with creative food planning? Will everything taste anew? Will we have a new appreciation for frugal food shopping strategies, or feel compelled to spend and feast freely, at least for a while, to remember and affirm that we can? There is no right answer. Our relationship with food will always be a personal matter. And we suspect that leftovers will always be one of life’s sweetest delights.