Leftovers used to be a regular part of eating, until they lost their economic and moral urgency and became groan-inducing instead.
It is that time of year when culinary excess reigns. During this week of Christmas holidays, many of us will have shared big meals with family and friends, resulting in fridges packed with leftover food – mashed potatoes, carrots, stock, turkey meat, a ham bone, and more.
While most people view this excess of food as wonderful bounty, there are many Americans who think of eating leftovers as an unpleasant, moralistic chore. They see it as a nuisance or, at the very least, monotony to incorporate leftovers into new meals. “We’re having leftovers for dinner” is often met by a chorus of groans.
This troubling negativity is chronicled in a fascinating article called “An Economic History of Leftovers,” published earlier this fall in The Atlantic. Author Helen Veit explores the role of leftovers in American society from their inception (when refrigeration was introduced in the early twentieth century) to modern times. Veit argues that throwing away food is a prerogative of financial security, and Americans began doing an awful lot of it once they became richer in the post-Second World War years.
“In fact, leftovers have always been uncomfortably close to garbage, and that proximity became glaringly obvious when leftovers lost both their economic and moral urgency.”
When food was scarce, difficult to preserve, and represented a significant chunk of one’s income or hard work, it was given greater respect. People took their acts of culinary reincarnation very seriously, coming up with curious recipes such as “How to feed 4 people 4 meals with 1 chicken,” as in my copy of 1970s-era The More-With-Less Cookbook.
“Breakfast was usually a meal of leftovers, the meat or beans or pie (or anything, really) left from the day before. Simmering stockpots were crucial catch-alls for kitchen scraps. Techniques like pickling, potting, smoking, and salting defined 19th-century cuisine because, before reliable refrigeration, cooking and food preservation were barely distinguishable tasks.”
In the early twentieth century, Americans spent approximately 40 percent of their income on food. Now that number has dropped to 10 percent, with a horrifying 24 percent of food getting lost along the way from farm to plate. Imagine dropping one out of every four grocery bags in the parking lot as you carry them out of the store, which is essentially what happens when ingredients are left to rot in the fridge and leftovers get ignored.
Veit believes that leftovers are entering a new heyday, that they are becoming newly appreciated for saving money and time spent preparing food, and that eaters are starting to understand that certain foods taste better when left to sit for several days. In addition, people are becoming more aware of the environmental footprint of food, understanding that ignoring leftovers has wider-reaching consequences than one might think at first glance.