Amanda Mull tweeted this morning that nearly every food culture except “modern American food culture” has a host of recipes and techniques for dealing with leftovers, and I replied in a way that made me feel like the 10,000 year old crone. She’s not wrong at all, but I tried to say something that can’t be said in 280 characters, about why “modern American food culture” makes me cranky, and I just came off like a finger-wagging boomer.
And then my friend Sara, who stayed here last night (sadly because of the virus, we didn’t get to see one another) texted me as she’s driving east for a second day, trying to get home to her ailing 91 year old mother while she still can. “What was that dahl you left?” she asked. “Can you send me the recipe?”
I’d left her some wine, and bread, and there was a pot of dahl/soup in the fridge I made a day or so ago. But I don’t have a recipe. What I had was a 16 ounce yogurt container of leftover red-lentil dahl in the freezer, and a tray of yellow beets and carrots that came in my CSA box that I’d roasted with some commercial schwarma spice a local spice company sells. And extra Aleppo pepper, because always extra Aleppo pepper.
I didn’t like the texture of the roasted carrots and beets, and I knew there was leftover dahl, and that I also wasn’t crazy about the texture of that. Sometimes red lentil dahls taste gritty to me. Combined, and cooked more with some water and white wine, I thought they might make a nice soup. I eat a lot of soup for lunch. I’ve worked at home for most of my career, and soup with a slice of toast is a staple around here.
Making leftovers into something else meant that when my brokenhearted friend needed a place to land for a night on a long long drive, I had a pot of soup to leave her, with some bread, and some wine. Enough that she took a Talenti jar with her as she headed out across the unsafe oil patch that is the Dakotas. Which made me even more happy.
Any of you who are getting notifications that I posted have been following me long enough to know that I have been pushing against “modern American food culture” for a long time. We have a whole generation, maybe two, who don’t know how to feed themselves. They have a few pretty party dishes, but faced with a situation like the one we’re in now, where they are bereft of restaurants and prepared foods, there are a lot of people out there really struggling.
They’re struggling because we all believed the propaganda. Believed that we didn’t need kitchens anymore. Believed that corporations could provide us an endless stream of pre-cooked and prepared meals in a bag. Believed that we don’t need to teach home economics anymore, and that knowing how to shop and budget and cook your own food and clean up your own home are chores of drugery.
They can be, but they can also be something more. They can be the means by which you build a home. I made a dahl-ish soup because I looked at those three yellowish things, spiced with warm spices like ginger and cinnamon and cardamom and coriander and thought — oh, those could go together. Maybe I’d like them more together than I do separately.
And I do. Topped with a dollop of yogurt, and some green onions that are the first things growing in my garden (it snowed, again), it’s delicous.
One reason I don’t pitch much “food writing” is because I find the entire machinery of food writing and food blogs and food photography so alien. It’s all still in service to the same consumer capitalist maw. It’s all about what’s “on trend” this year. It’s about what looks pretty in an Instagram photo.
In my second tweet replying about American leftovers, I tried to be more constructive. There’s a fabulous value cookbook from the mid-80s called American Gumbo from which I learned a lot in my brokey mcbroke years. The hippie cookbooks of that era are also good — lots of things you can do with cheap staples like beans and grains. I’ve written on a number of occasions about my deep love for Patience Grey’s Honey from a Weed, in which she describes all the ways she fed herself and the scupltor as the knocked around the Mediterranean with no money. Vine twig fires and an earthenware pot of beans.
If we’re going to survive this planetary sea change we’re seeing start to play out, we must change our lives. We’re going to have to think about the actual realities of food and food systems. We’ve been burning the planet alive so we can jet ourselves and our food around the world. That I’m looking at Australian oranges in a supermaket in Montana is insane.
Maybe a place to start is to learn to cook with what we have. It’s a good place to practice that kind of creativity. Don’t think of it as “leftovers” think of is as one of those cooking challenge shows. You have a container of leftover dahl. You have two gigantic yellow beets and some big carrots that came in your CSA box. Now what?