Every spring, growing up, my elementary school would put on a fifth grade Science Fair. They’d clear out the gym, bring in a bunch of those long cafeteria tables, and the fifth graders would file in early, groggy and grumpy, to set up their exhibits. Later that day, we’d take our places behind our posters and dioramas and baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, as the rest of the school filtered through, pretending to be interested. My exhibit was a poster-board triptych about beach erosion, which is strange to me now, seeing as we lived nowhere near the beach and I gave not one fig about erosion.* The thing I remember most from that day, though, was not my lame poster or the sweet feeling of relief when the fair was finally over. What I remember most was an exhibit, a few doors down from mine, cheerily titled “Nuclear Winter.”
I wasn’t sure what nuclear winter was, exactly. Was it related to acid rain, that great scourge of the late 70s and early 80s? Was it the same thing as fallout? Would it require a bulkier winter coat? No, if this exhibit was to be believed, nuclear winter was something far, far worse. This was no shoebox diorama. This was, no exaggeration**, a 2×3 foot topographical model of a ravaged landscape. When nuclear winter came knocking, it announced, the world would turn the color of cigarette ash and bus exhaust. Human beings – those that survived – would be forced underground. The sun would be extinguished, winter settling in for the long haul. Here and there were shattered (painted plastic) tree trunks and a pile of rubble that was once a house. The boy who made the exhibit had strewn some white, stick-like things on the ground which, he said, were supposed to represent animal bones. Here was a simple law of nature that even a fifth grader could understand: without sun, there is no food; without food, everything dies. Call me sheltered, but this was a possibility I had not yet contemplated in life. What fifth grader does? Either this kid was the love child of Cormac McCarthy and Ingmar Bergman, or he was onto something real, in which case my family would need to be prepared. We had no stockpiles of food in our basement, only a workbench, a giant foam mattress, a pool table, and some old cans of Minwax. If nuclear winter hit and the animals died and our Safeway was reduced to a gray smudge, how would we survive? What would we do for food?
Thirty years later, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d head to my in-laws’.
Open the door to Jenny’s mother’s refrigerator, and this is – more or less – what you will see: very little that resembles what we think of as “groceries.” You will see orange juice and water, a tub of whipped cream cheese, and a smattering of condiments. But mainly, you will see endless bowls and plates and little glass dishes, all neatly covered in Saran Wrap, containing leftovers. A dessert plate with five green beans. A bowl with three flaccid strawberries. A plastic take-out container with two ounces of plain spaghetti, cooked, and another plastic take-out container with about four tablespoons of marinara sauce. One-third of a breaded chicken cutlet. Half a piece of French toast. A Chinese food carton containing a single piece of black-bean shrimp. A Ziploc bag containing one sad leaf of Boston lettuce. Enough hummus to satisfy a field mouse. A slice of honeydew melon, vintage unknown. None of this will go to waste, by the way. Not one bit of it will be thrown out. Everything here will be repurposed, over the coming days, into the brown bag lunches that Jenny’s mom has taken to work every day for the last 30 years. Think of it as leftover tapas. This is an actual picture I took at her house last weekend:
When Jenny and I were first together, and I was just getting to know her family, I could. Not. Get. Over. This. My family was not a leftover family. This was not a wasteful thing; we mostly ate the leftovers before they had a chance to become leftovers. To give you a sense of our general stance at the dinner table, my plate-clearing mother’s nickname growing up was “The Disposal.” Jenny’s family, though, was a little daintier. She grew up in a house where people ate with unfathomable restraint and nun-like discipline; she knew what portion control was before portion control was a thing. (Famous story in Jenny’s house: her parents once bought a single pint of ice cream for a dinner party for… nine people! Okay, another famous story: we once had a single bottle of wine for Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody, raise your thimbles! If you want more famous stories, email me directly.) And whatever was left over, no matter how small, was not ever swept into the sink. “Don’t throw that away!” Jenny’s mom would say, as I tipped a plate containing a lone baby carrot toward the garbage pail. “That’s perfectly good!” Anything edible was deemed perfectly good, wrapped up, and put away to be reckoned with later. I was so amazed by this, actually, that I decided to conduct an experiment one day, to see just how far this would go: on a Sunday morning, before we were married, I took a blueberry pancake from my plate, and perched it…just…so…on the lip of the garbage can. And waited. Jenny’s mom finished up at the stove, moved to put the pan into the sink, turned to join us at the table, and then froze. She has the vision of a barn owl. She had spotted my pancake. She moved closer. Unaware that we were watching, she bent down to inspect it. And lifted it out of the garbage can. At which point, Jenny and I exploded into laughter. “Very funny,” she said. And put the pancake on her plate.
All of which is a very long way of saying that, when it comes to leftovers in our house, Jenny and I fall somewhere between our two families, in the middle of the spectrum. We save what gets better with age (stews, braises, meat sauces) and what can be used in school lunches the following day (drumsticks, pizza slices, pork tenderloin for a mind-blowing sandwich). But maybe the best, quickest leftover meal – and one we would make once a week if we could get the kids fully on board with eggs – is the spaghetti omelet. It’s perfectly good. – Andy
Do not try this with freshly made pasta — it won’t work. Use 3 eggs for every 1 cup of cooked spaghetti.
Fry leftover, unsauced spaghetti in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add some salt and cook for 5 minutes until crispy on the bottom. Add 1 tablespoon finely chopped onions or scallions, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, then flip over like a pancake. Whisk together some grated Parmesan cheese with eggs. Add eggs to the pan and cook until they are done, 2 to 3 minutes. (You can also crack the eggs right into the crisped spaghetti.) Flip one more time. Serve like a pizza, cut into wedges.
*The original plan, hatched with my friend J., was to demonstrate this with a tub-sized plastic container, a bag of sand, and a few gallons of water, dyed a Carribean blue. I would then attach a fan to one end of the tub, turn it on high, and make actual waves – which, in turn, would slowly erode the beach in real time. When I relayed this plan to my dad, he responded, “That’s a wonderful idea. Wow. Or you could just do a poster.”
**Okay, a little exaggeration.