Early Lessons on Leftovers

Like many children, I loved time spent in my grandmother’s kitchen. After school, and especially in the summer, we were always cooking up something—cookies, cakes, applesauce, rhubarb jam. She was a “hands-on” kind of grandma, willing to let slide any mess made by a young helper in the midst of learning important lessons at the stove.

One of the mysteries I regularly pondered during those formative years was the frequency of suppers she described as “leftovers.” I thought having leftovers meant you warmed up the remains of some previous meal and slopped it out again and again until it was gone. But somehow, many of her leftover meals weren’t familiar to me. One evening, I asked about that:

“Gram,” I said, “This can’t be leftovers. I’ve been here for supper every night since Tuesday. When did we have this the first time?”

 “I’m not as dumb as I look,” she casually replied.

Which was a very typical comeback for her. She went on to explain that when she served something as leftovers, she always tried to transform it from the original. The potato salad we had for Saturday lunch might have been the boiled potatoes she served at Thursday’s dinner; the dessert we had Sunday may have been built on the scraps of bread and rolls she saved from earlier in the month (seriously, she made the best bread pudding, but that will be a recipe for another day).

We lost Gram last summer at 97. One of my regrets is that I didn’t ask her more questions about her perspective on life, and how she was shaped by the events over which she had no control. But perhaps I didn’t have to. Her perspective was on display in every meal she made, every piece of clothing she mended, every garden she grew, and every jar of home-canned tomatoes, green beans and pickles stashed in her pantry. God, I wish I had that pantry today.

People who rode out the Great Depression had a special way of making masterpieces from scraps, and it makes me wonder what we will learn, and pass down, from our experience with this pandemic. Will the grandchildren of our generation one day say, “I learned this from a relative who survived COVID-19?” Or, when this is all over, will we simply return to our business-as-usual consumerism? The headlines are spattered with stories of protesters demanding that we return to the “normal” way of living. But maybe the uptick in searches for articles on “making sourdough bread” and “homesteading basics” will bring a new and lasting normal. Time will tell, I suppose, and so will our attitudes.

Last night for dinner, in the style of my grandmother, I whipped up a random Mexican-themed meal (a last-minute effort to observe Cinco de Mayo) from a leftover fried chicken breast we had on Saturday night, some fabulously spicy green salsa that accompanied a take-out taco order we had last Wednesday, and one of the many cans of black beans I stockpiled when we went into quarantine. A little frozen corn, a little cheese. It wasn’t fancy, but it was delicious—exactly the kind of meal Gram would’ve made in times like these, and she’d be proud. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to making our protective face masks. Because, of course, she also taught me to use a sewing machine.

4 thoughts on “Early Lessons on Leftovers

  1. Aunt Joy

    Terrie’s grandma was my Mom and I strive to be the kind of grandma she was. We were all fortunate to have her in our lives.


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