On a cool spring day, you find yourself with a hankering for beef stew. There are many ways to eat this desired meal. You could go to the grocery store, purchase the ingredients, and assemble them at home. You could outsource all of that labor and simply order the dish at a restaurant. Or, like an increasing number of Americans, you could take the pre-portioned ingredients out of a meal-kit box and follow the printed instructions.
Some of the resulting plates will be better than others. Discerning palates might be able to tell them all apart, but that is hardly the most effective technique. The real differences appear in the hours and days after the meal—in the remaining stalks of celery moldering in the back of a vegetable crisper, or the pile of cardboard boxes waiting to be recycled, or the scraps of stew being repurposed. With apologies to the French politician and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, you are what you eat—the day after cooking it.
With the decline of traditional home cookery and the rise of efficiency-obsessed start-ups, however, leftovers face a new challenge: finding a role at a time when meals are increasingly taken outside of the home, or assembled from kits. Is there room for leftovers in such a world?
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In the court of Henry VII, it was customary for diners to leave food on their plates that could later be given to the lower classes. Using leftovers as a compulsory charity, a practice referred to as “manners,” helped clarify the social order. In America, the term leftovers dates from the early 20th century, contemporaneous with the rise of refrigeration. Then as now, leftovers were inexorably linked with technological change. From the 1930s through the ’50s, the ability to transform leftovers into interesting dishes was a significant part of middle-class culture. This tradition underwrote cookbooks that now feel wonderfully dated, like Ruth Berolzheimer’s 500 Delicious Dishes from Leftovers, which includes a recipe for Prune Whip Pie. As the novelty of refrigeration wore off, concoctions like Prune Whip Pie lost their appeal. Leftovers fell victim to refrigeration’s ability to preserve ingredients for longer than diners might want to eat them.