What’s Cooking Wednesday: Please Pass the Leftovers

A wartime poster encourages the use of leftovers (ARC 515949)

The National Archives current marquee exhibit, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?”, is drawing some good crowds and public press. It’s showing in our main building in downtown Washington through Jan. 3, 2012.

It’s all about how the Government has tried through the decades to dictate, or influence, what we should eat and why we should eat something from each food group each day. And dear Uncle kept changing the food groups. For a while, we had the food wheel, then came the food pyramid. Now we have the food plate — each of them divided into groups we were supposed to eat from each day.

One food group always left out is “Leftovers.”  We have no guidance on how much leftovers to eat each day.

When I was growing up in rural Missouri, leftovers were a staple at the supper table. Of course, there were leftovers from Thanksgiving and Christmas–turkey sandwiches, turkey salad, turkey soup, and so on. Or just plain turkey all over again. 

We ate a lot of leftovers at our house. But I remember especially Mom’s tuna casserole.  Not many leftovers on that. She always made one when I came home from college on weekends. By the time I left a day or so later, there wasn’t a morsel to be found.

Actually, casseroles and other things like that, such as lasagna or baked rigatoni, often taste better left over; the flavors have had time to get to know each other, all to the benefit of us, the eaters.

My wife’s family, full-blooded Italian, was different. Her father would simply not eat leftovers, so there were none.  There weren’t many leftovers in any event.  My mother-in-law is a fabulous cook, and you  didn’t want to leave anything uneaten anyway. (Especially her signature dish, baked manicotti. Can’t be beat!)

When my wife went away to school (I won’t say where but it was one of those fancy Eastern girls’ schools), the dining halls  served leftovers and the students called it “mystery meat.” Even today, “mystery meat” is still around, some of it sold in frozen entrees at your local grocery. Back at our lil ol’ state college in Missouri, food was fresh every day; no leftovers.  I did get a lot of  “mystery meat” in the U.S. Army, but we didn’t make a big fuss of it. After all, it was the Army, you just ate it.

The most respectable leftovers these days come in “doggy bags” taken home from those big family restaurants, where the servings are often more than you and your family could ever eat in one sitting.  They expect you to take it home for another meal or two and so they provide sturdy,  fancy shopping bags with their name all over them.

That means you can carry around your leftover eggplant parmesan in a bag that looks like you just picked up a nice little something at Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus.

We’ve walked out with those bags and found the leftovers good for several meals, depending on who gets to the refrigerator first for a snack. 

The WWII poster encouraged cooks to "Give It Style" (ARC 514385)

When our refrigerator gets too many leftover items in it, it’s time to take some drastic action. 

Sometimes, I dump them all into a skillet, add maybe some mushrooms or chopped tomatoes and some seasoning, maybe cheese, and warm it up as a stove-top casserole.  Other times, I just dump everything into a casserole dish, add some stuff, and let the flavors get acqainted to create something new.  These things are never the same, just done on the fly.  (Wonder what Julia would say about this?)

So when next you’re faced with a lot of leftovers, do something before they start turning green and moldy. Create your own “mystery casserole.” Let your imagination go; think outside the oven.

And don’t forget to come to the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit. There’s an online preview at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/whats-cooking/preview/index.html.

In the meantime, bon appetit!

One thought on “What’s Cooking Wednesday: Please Pass the Leftovers

  1. It’s interesting to read and know that making leftovers from can turn into an actual meal for dinner the next night.

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