What to Do About the Leftovers?

LIKE many things located at the intersection of obligation and potential pleasure — music recitals, family outings, the theater — leftovers are a source of complicated emotion. Just ask Diana Abu-Jaber, a novelist who once wrote a memoir told through food, “The Language of Baklava.”

At a party she held at her house in Portland, Ore., in 2001 to celebrate her marriage, two of her neighbors brought her a gift: a Mason jar with a jaunty red bow on it. “It seemed to contain chunks of some sort of appalling turgid brownish oozing cake,” Ms. Abu-Jaber said. It came with a note of explanation that read: “This half loaf of zucchini chocolate bread was a (failed) experiment. But maybe you will like it. Happy marriage!”

“To this day, we marvel at whatever might have possessed them to pass that on to us,” Ms. Abu-Jaber said.

We think of leftovers with special frequency during a recession because they represent our efforts to be economical. Frugality may be a virtue, but there is no denying that when it comes to leftovers, people get a little nutty.

That some foods, but not all foods, are more flavorsome the day after they’re made doesn’t seem to simplify matters. As Ms. Abu-Jaber put it: “Lots of dishes improve with time, and leftovers can be the sweetest sort of offering. They imply that you share a home-style friendship, that you aren’t company, but family. But sometimes leftovers are just that — the stuff no one wanted to eat the first time around.”

The complicated emotions can persist even when there’s no cooking involved.

Annabelle Gurwitch, a host of the eco-living show “Wa$ted” on the cable network Planet Green, got a call from a neighbor in early May asking for the rest of the Irish cheese from Costco that the neighbor had left at the Gurwitches’ house in Los Angeles four nights earlier. So the next morning Ms. Gurwitch’s husband drove to the neighbor’s house, dutifully returning custody of the eight ounces of cheese.

“I did feel odd giving it back,” Ms. Gurwitch said. “I felt like it was ours now.” But revenge was soon hers: a week later, dining at the cheese-revoking neighbor’s house, Ms. Gurwitch absconded with a loaf of bread that she hadn’t even brought.

In some instances, the inherent virtuousness of dispensing the world’s uneaten foods seems to fuel, if not provide rationalization for, some odd behavior.

Natasha Lehrer, an editor and writer, explained that when her mother and aunt were studying at, respectively, Oxford and Cambridge, their father, George Webber, a law professor at University College London, regularly mailed his two daughters the legs from his and his wife’s roast chicken. On Friday nights, he would wrap the legs in aluminum foil, put them in envelopes, and then pop them into the mail on his way to synagogue on Saturday morning.

“He was the Jewish mother of the family, my grandmother failing to fulfill the role,” Ms. Lehrer wrote in an e-mail message. She added that her mother ate the contents of her strange and bulbous care packages but that her aunt did not. “There is some truth to the notion that my mother was the obedient daughter (ate the leg), and her sister the rebel (threw it away).”

In other instances, the unusual leftovers-inspired behavior is motivated less by a neurotic compulsion to dispense than by a dogged attempt to deplete.

Clément Gaujal, a customer quality representative for Nissan who grew up in Paris, recalled that his mother had a tenuous grasp of batch size when it came to lentils, and often ended up serving their leftovers for three or four days in a row. So, after buying a small notebook filled with graph paper, Mrs. Gaujal started a lentils diary: she and her husband and four sons would chronicle how the lentils were prepared at each meal, how much was eaten by various members of the family, what was discussed during the meal, and, of course, what percentage of the offerings were left uneaten. Any family member not in attendance at any given meal was the subject of mild, legume-based ridicule.

Continue Reading over at the NY Times.com]

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