Irma Rombauer said she wrote The Joy of Cooking with “one eye on the family purse.” Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the original 1931 edition had so much to say about leftovers. Rombauer carefully inventoried all the recipes in the book that could serve as vessels for leftovers, and she enthusiastically detailed her favorite all-purpose techniques, such as folding chopped leftovers (it didn’t really matter what) into waffle batter or mixing them with cream sauce and stuffing them into hollowed-out vegetables.
These tips resurfaced in editions of The Joy of Cooking published well after the Depression, but the tone on leftovers steadily shifted. In the early 1950s, Rombauer noted for the first time that too much budget-minded cooking could incite “family protest,” and she urged cooks not to think of leftovers as dreary. By the 1963 edition, the first published after Rombauer’s death, her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker drastically condensed the leftovers section and started it with a joke: “‘It seems to me,’ the minister said, after his new wife placed a dubious casserole on the table, ‘that I have blessed a good deal of this material before.’”
The truth was that by the 1960s leftovers were becoming a joke to a lot of people, with a grumbling husband and a mystery casserole playing stock roles. That humor was a direct result of abundance. In the postwar era, a historically anomalous food economy was coming to define American culture, as the cost of food relative to income plummeted and even the poorest Americans were less desperate for calories than they had ever been. Leftovers were coming to seem less like a signal of household abundance and more like a drag. The best way to serve them, another joke went, was to somebody else.