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Leftovers through the years from patriotic to the “in” thing

Posted on November 15, 2019 | Comments

Without the formality of a survey, think it’s safe to say that for most people, leftovers have a place at the table so to speak, especially at Thanksgiving. With all the preparation fuss over the turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, many look forward to transforming those ingredients into a mouth-watering sandwich the next day. Veggies and turkey broth are the makings of soups and traditional pies and other tasty desserts become perfect additions to late-night snacks or coffee breaks. Where would we be without leftovers?

Prior to refrigeration, leftovers were nonexistent. Cookbooks before the turn of the 20th century featured recipes for pickling, curing or salting the uneaten food to keep from throwing it away. The ice box (aka proto refrigerator) made it possible for food served at one meal to be dished up again for another. Other than improvements in refrigeration over the years, the history of leftovers has more to do with social attitudes than the ability to keep cooked food cold and safe.

During World War I, eating leftovers was considered patriotic. In 1917 a U.S. Food Administration poster reminded citizens to “serve just enough and use what is left” while Good Housekeeping ran a headline in 1930 that read, “Leftovers Shouldn’t Be Left Over.” By the 1960’s it wasn’t so critical to save leftovers, rather it was a sign of middle-class abundance to throw them away. Fast food restaurants and TV dinners proved to be more convenient than cooking at home. When women joined the workforce in greater numbers, using leftovers for another meal was often perceived as women cutting corners on their household responsibilities. Until the turn of the 21st century, diners weren’t sure whether leftovers were “in” or “out”.

Fast forward to the present: leftovers are the “in” thing. “Yesterday’s Soup” made from the previous day’s leftovers is a big hit at one of my favorite restaurants. Most eateries go out of their way to provide special packaging for what I call, “leftover takeout”. While there might be some debate about whether they should be wrapped up to go from the kitchen or at the patron’s table, leaving an eating place with a doggie bag is now considered very socially acceptable.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and many other festive holidays before year-end, leftovers will be in the height of the social season whether on the home front or at a favorite restaurant. They may have had a checkered past, but the future looks healthy and strong. Three cheers for leftovers and my wishes for a happy thanksgiving!

Originally published Orange County Register, November 14, 2019

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