In Praise of Leftovers

Last week I enjoyed a large bounty of one of those simple wonders of modern living: leftovers. They are often unappreciated and sometimes even maligned, but I think whoever invented leftovers was brilliant.

Maybe leftovers got a bad rap back in the day when humans were killing wooly mammoths and the tribe ate the same meal for months at a time. That whole lack of refrigeration problem meant that each day the remaining mammoth meat tasted a little worse or else you had to go through the effort of drying and salting and, let’s be honest, it was a bit tough after that.

But now, leftovers are brilliant. Here are just a few good things about them.

Thing #1: You don’t have to cook. Or dry and salt. I like to cook, but I also like not cooking every day. It’s a treat to have a little extra time to accomplish something worthwhile, like checking Facebook.

Thing #2: You don’t have to figure out what to cook.

Thing #3: Leftovers are kind of like loaves and fishes. If you put some into a separate Tupperware, you suddenly have a whole other meal called lunch.

Thing #4: They taste good—usually.

Thing #5: They are free. OK, not really, but they are already paid for as opposed to almost any other option available on nights when you don’t want to cook.

Thing #6: You don’t have to cook. Did I mention this already?

Thing #7: You can freeze them and then you don’t have to cook some other day. You can even freeze them in individual containers and eat them now and again rather than five days in a row. Or so I hear. I have never been organized enough to take advantage of this particular benefit.

Reading this list might lead you to believe that the essence of what makes leftovers fabulous is that you can be lazy. That might be true. Let’s make it Thing #8.

Simple Is Good

The great thing about French is that it makes even the most ordinary things sound fancy. I cooked ratatouille for the first time tonight and discovered that it is not at all fancy.

I think ratatouille must once have meant, “I’m tired from screaming at the kids and milking the goat and cleaning the house all day. I don’t know what to make for dinner, so I’m going to roast whatever vegetables are ready to pick with some olive oil, garlic, and, hm, the rosemary bush needs trimming so I’ll throw in a couple branches.”

To make this dish, you cut vegetables in big pieces, toss them in some olive oil and salt, throw the pan in the oven, and end up with a rather delicious dinner (at least if you follow the recipe in the wonderful cookbook Cook This Now by Melissa Clark). Not delicious in the “my mouth is turning somersaults trying to figure out what this unique flavor combination is” but delicious in its simplicity.

Simple things bring us back to ourselves, snatch us off our hamster wheel of thoughts about past mistakes and future pressures and say to us, “Here, try putting your feet on the ground. It is a little easier that way.” Some people may feel most relaxed wearing an evening gown and dining on duck a l’orange, but I suspect for most of us it’s macaroni and cheese and our favorite sweats.

Our daily lives demand a lot of being on—on top of things, on the ball, on target. Stews, soups, and sweatpants, on the other hand, offer comfort without demanding a lot of skill or attention. You don’t have to impress the chicken and dumplings; they love you already. And your chicken and dumplings don’t have to impress whoever’s eating them; those people already love chicken and dumplings.

After dinner, the cat curled up in my lap, and we lounged until a moth appeared who needed to be chased. I think the Quakers had it right: ‘tis a gift to be simple.