“If you don’t eat this, I’m going to have to throw it out.”
No greater assurance of potential food poisoning was ever uttered than those words. But what proud Southern grandma hasn’t spoken similar words? I’m pretty sure my own mother used that phrase from time to time.
Growing up, eating leftovers was no big deal. It was part of the rhythm of our household. Six days a week my mother cooked our noon meal while she made breakfast. The burners were then turned off with the pots still sitting on them, and my mother commuted the 100 yards to work at my father’s veterinary clinic. At approximately 11:30AM she would walk back down the dirt trail to the house, turn the burners on low, check whatever was in the oven, and either return to work for a few minutes or wait for the rest of the family to come in at noon.
All the pots were put directly on the blue formica table so you could help yourself to seconds. Occasionally a visiting drug salesman would be invited to join us. They would be told we were treating them like family by serving straight from the pots. (We came to know some of those salesmen like family because their periodic visits always seemed to coincide with lunchtime!). I did have relatives who would never serve straight from the pot and others who asked you to fix your plate in the kitchen and then sit down. I preferred our family practice for its simplicity and ease of clean-up.
After lunch, as the table was cleared, most pots were put back on the stove. On most days, the kitchen was now closed and whatever we might eat for supper would either be reheated from those same pots or consist of a white-bread sandwich with processed, sliced ham or bologna. These were the days before microwaves, so reheating the meal broke it down a little bit more and required less chewing. As a child, I never knew the term al dente. I also never knew vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower could be something other than mush with a slice of American cheese melted over them. But with six in the family, leftovers did not usually last long.
I do recall the time my mother spent weeks in the hospital when I was about five years old. My paternal grandmother came to town to help take care of us kids. (I was the only one not in school at the time.) She made mash potatoes one day. A lot of them. The next day they came out of the refrigerator—cold. The quantity only reduced slightly after that meal so they arrived on the table again the next day. Only my father ate them that day. I was young, but I think they surfaced twice more for lunch that week. Either Dad finished them off or my grandmother shared what was left with the cows that would gather at the back fence for handouts.
Many years later, after my mother passed away and my father was on his own, visiting his house was a test in digestive courage. We never knew what we might find opening the refrigerator. Well-meaning friends brought him food quite often, and we even arranged for a restaurant to deliver meals for a couple years, but his appetite could not keep up with the volume of food and his desire to throw it out was stuck somewhere in his depression-era habits. Sometimes we acted as if we ate it but threw it out and sometimes we did our best to convince the dogs to give it a try. After a few tongue lashings, we learned to spread out the mysterious disappearance over several days of our visit.
Leftovers can be a blessing, a curse, and even a puzzle to solve. They can save the day when it’s evening, it has been a long day, and you need a quick meal. Or they can make you wonder what exactly will happen to your body if you ignore the sniff-test and consume them anyway. And they are always a good test of your memory—when, exactly, did we last have fish?
If you don’t eat this, I’m going to have to throw it out!