KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
From floating old food in Jell-O molds to casseroles to cold pizza, the way we reuse and eat leftovers in America is special. And it turns out that if you track our relationship with leftovers over time, you will understand a lot about our economy and how we live. Historian Helen Zoe Veit wrote about this for The Atlantic, and she told me the article all started with her research on cooking during the Civil War, back when leftovers were just food.
HELEN ZOE VEIT: I came across one book that's called "What To Do With The Cold Mutton." And it really caught my eye just because it was so unusual. For one thing, it was such a catchy title, but also, it acknowledged the fact that leftovers were something that people were dealing with. And in fact, what that made me think was how rare it was at all to even see this acknowledged precisely because it was so normal.
MCEVERS: And you write that Americans' enthusiasm for leftovers really took off later during World War I - people hearing, you know, there are starving kids in Europe; we have to conserver our food. And then, in the Great Depression, reusing food became a necessity.
VEIT: That's right. For so many Americans in the Great Depression, that was really a time when leftovers were held up as a special culinary category for the first time. For one thing, it's something you had to do to stay within the family budget but also as something that could be a realm for art and for creativity that clever housewives could use to show off their skills, in a sense.
MCEVERS: And then things reached a peak - you call it the golden age of leftovers - in the '40s and '50s. Can you give us some highlights from that time?
VEIT: Absolutely. This is a time, if anyone is an amateur culinary historian, that makes really fascinating but sometimes sort of disgusting reading, where, really, a lot of the rules about what was good to eat were no longer applied when it came to leftovers. I see things like ham banana rolls with cheese sauce or...
MCEVERS: Wait. What is that?
MCEVERS: What is a ham banana roll?
VEIT: That would be a banana with leftover ham wrapped around it sort of like a crepe. And then they would've been arranged in a casserole dish with a cheese sauce poured over them and then baked.
MCEVERS: That sounds horrible - and any other highlights?
VEIT: One amazing recipe that I found for leftover carrots called not just for reheating them but for pureeing them, mixing them with seasonings and breadcrumbs and then shaping them into long cones and topping them with parsley so that they resembled carrots. And to me, this was such an amazing example of leftovers elevated to art.
MCEVERS: But then, but the 1960s, leftovers, you write, lost their, quote, "economic and moral urgency." What happened?
VEIT: Well, I think one of the most important things that happened is that Americans were less desperate for calories than they had ever been. And for a lot of Americans, waste became a purgative of financial security. People openly complained about leftovers. Although, of course, many people continued to eat leftovers, it receded from, you know, the sort of avant-garde of culinary trendiness and became this very second-rate culinary category, something that you might reheat for lunch but that would never, for example, be served to guests.
MCEVERS: And now, you say, we are in a bit of a leftovers Renaissance. Why do you think people are more excited about reusing old food?
VEIT: Well, I think that although Americans now spend even less on food than they used to - just over 10 percent of our incomes on average - Americans are newly aware of the other costs that go into food production, whether it's the use of water or of gasoline to transport food or to cool it or to cook it. And I think more and more Americans are unwilling to throw away edible food.
MCEVERS: Do you have a personal favorite?
VEIT: Well, I am a big fan of cooking on the weekends and making enough to last through the week. But then again, you know, that's, to me - was interesting because when I come home on a Tuesday and find a pot of soup that I made on the weekend, I don't think of that as a leftover. I think of that as awesome.
MCEVERS: Helen Zoe Veit is a historian at Michigan State University. Her article for The Atlantic is "An Economic History Of Leftovers." Helen, thank you so much.
VEIT: Thank you for having me.
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