Leftovers have been around as long as we have, but it’s only recently that we’ve had such a focus on leftovers. Apart from the ubiquitous bubble and squeak, which started appearing in English cookbooks in the mid-1800s, the focus has been on systematically collecting excess to salt it, smoke it, dry it, cook it in syrup, or otherwise preserve it to get through the lean months of a cold winter, or a very hot dry summer.
Elderly migrant friends who’ve survived famines know nothing of leftovers. They grow what they can, buy what they need and no more, preserve everything, and make only as much as they need. Excess, if they have it, is by design for the purpose of preserving. Similarly, my grandmother knew nothing of leftovers until she was very old. She cooked just the right amount for whoever was there. Scraps, as she called them, were fed to the dog or the chooks. But then my grandmother cooked for a hundred shearers before she could read and write. There probably weren’t any leftovers in those days.
Anne of Green Gables (1908) gave this account of her (mis)use of leftovers:
We had a plum pudding for dinner on Tuesday and there was half the pudding and a pitcherful of sauce left over. Marilla said there was enough for another dinner and told me to set it on the pantry shelf and cover it. I meant to cover it just as much as could be, Diana, but when I carried it in I was imagining I was a nun—of course I’m a Protestant but I imagined I was a Catholic—taking the veil to bury a broken heart in cloistered seclusion; and I forgot all about covering the pudding sauce. I thought of it next morning and ran to the pantry. Diana, fancy if you can my extreme horror at finding a mouse drowned in that pudding sauce!
When did ‘leftovers’ appear?
The word itself first appeared—as a noun referring to food that wasn’t eaten during the meal—is supposed to have appeared in the 1890s. It was possibly a way to stretch tight household budgets in a depressed urban economy. Until a few days ago, not one of my far-too-many cookbooks had recipes designed just to use up leftovers. Until a few days ago, that was, when a relative passed on this little booklet:
It’s the user manual for a refrigerator. It’s not dated, but we know it’s old. Firstly, it dates back to a time when Australia made things. Secondly, the maintenance instructions tell the user to defrost once a week, and this includes an instruction to “Turn out the kerosene flame”. By the way, the title Simple Catering is not accurate. A better title would have been Put all these things in your fridge and they won’t go off. It happens to include two options for making aspic: that great preservative and presentation medium:
Aspic has been around as long as there’s been a need to preserve meat. Mrs Beeton in her 1861 Book of Household Management describes it as an end in itself, to be used in making molds for presenting chicken and other foods. The first known recipe for aspic was written in the fourteenth-century cookbook Le Viandier de Taillevent. If you’ve ever made your own meat or chicken stock by boiling bones for hours, then the jelly-like substance that results is the start of aspic. Garde Manger has more on the ‘real’ history of aspic.
All that said, the first dictionary reference I can find to the word ‘leftovers’ is in my 1997 Macquarie Dictionary. Maybe someone with an older dictionary can find an earlier listing. My oldest dictionary dates back to the 1950s.
By World War 2, the American government had decided it needed to encourage thrifty use of food, including leftovers, as part of the war effort. Posters like these were plastered around:
But the hard work had already been done: cookbooks with suggestions for using leftovers in a variety of creative ways were published in World War 1 and shortly afterwards. These books seems to be the first that systematically taught home cooks how to use leftovers. They coincided with the rise of home economics in America, and attempts by the well meaning to revolutionise the way the middle and lower classes ate.
These revolutionary home economists underestimated their task:
They were probably fighting the opinions of cookery writers like Christopher Crowfield’s in his 1865 book House and Home Papers:
As to those things called hashes, commonly manufactured by unwatched, untaught cooks, out of the remains of yesterday’s repast, let us not dwell too closely on their memory, – compounds of meat, gristle, skin, fat, and burnt fibre, with a handful of pepper and salt flung at them, dredged with lumpy flour, watered from the spout of the tea-kettle, and left to simmer at the cook’s convenience while she is otherwise occupied.
He doesn’t use the word ‘leftovers’, but he’s familiar enough with the idea to loathe it.
In the end, patriotism seems to have swayed those stubborn home cooks. In the UK it was wartime rationing. The American cookbook, Foods That Will Win The War And How To Cook Them (1918) tells us:
Elimination of food waste is to-day a patriotic service. … Food waste is due to poor selection of raw materials, to careless storage and heedless preparation, to bad cooking, to injudicious serving, and to the overflowing garbage pail.
To select food in such a way as will eliminate waste and at the same time insure the best possible return for money spent, the housekeeper must purchase for nutriment rather than to please her own or the family palate. [retrieved from the Gutenberg Press]
Mrs Wilson: Navy cooking instructor
Mrs Wilson, who ran a US Navy cooking school, gave us the following tip in her 1920 cookbook:
Have you ever had just a small piece of fish left over, entirely too small to serve by itself? And rather than leave it on a plate or saucer to form an accumulation you think, “Well, I can’t use it, so into the garbage it goes.”
Now this tablespoon or two of fish would have made you a few delicious canapés; by flaking it and then putting it through a sieve. Place it on a platter and then add:
Two tablespoons of butter,
One teaspoon of paprika,
One tablespoon of grated onion,
One tablespoon of finely minced parsley.
Work to a smooth paste and then spread on a narrow strip of toast. Garnish with a slice of hard-boiled egg.
She also tells us how to use leftover lamb:
Cut slices from the roast lamb and then line a large platter with crisp leaves of lettuce. Place on the platter the slices of meat. Serve with mint or currant jelly. Use the uneven pieces for curry of lamb or a baked emince of lamb, with green peppers and vegetable salad.
And leftover spinach
To one-half cup of leftover spinach add
One tablespoon grated onion,
One cup of cream sauce,
One hard-boiled egg, chopped fine,
One teaspoon of salt,
One-half teaspoon of pepper.
Mix and then place in a baking dish and sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven for eighteen minutes. Serve in place of meat for luncheon.
Myrtle Read’s ideas for stuffed tomato and doilies
Only four years earlier, Myrtle Read gave us her suggestions for leftovers, but you’ll need a doily:
A “left-over” which is otherwise hopeless may often be used advantageously in a ramekin with an egg. The small individual dishes are pleasing, when served on a fresh doily.
I especially liked her stuffed tomato salad:
Scald, drain, skin, and chill large, well-shaped, ripe tomatoes. Cut a slice off the blossom end, scoop out the pulp, drain, mix with an equal quantity of finely cut celery and a little minced onion. Mix with mayonnaise, fill the shells, put a spoonful of stiff mayonnaise on top, with a little sprig of parsley upright for a garnish, or an English walnut meat. Any salad which combines well with the flavor of tomato may be served in tomato shells, and as a cupful of salad will stuff several tomatoes, the problem of insignificant salad left-overs is often solved in this way.
Memories of leftovers
So what can we say? In the days of large sharehouses, there was no such thing as leftovers. Young people in their twenties can eat however much you cook. As newlyweds in our own home, we cooked for two nights of meals when there was just the two of us. Were they leftovers if they were planned for two nights? When the kids came along, we still had leftovers for a while, if you can call them that. Teenagers are a different story: leftovers were just a memory. And as kids leave home, the volume of food gets scaled back and leftovers, if you can call them that, are again planned future meals.
What are your leftover memories? What did your grandparents do? What do your cookbooks say?
And finally, just because there’s really nothing new under the sun, we can quote a famous seventeenth century writer, The Reverend Thomas Fuller, who is credited with this saying: