'Tis the season of excess, and the one time of the year when leftovers come into their own in the form of endless turkey sandwiches. Yet for the rest of the year, clearing one's plate is now frowned upon.
A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine
My year is drawing to a close in its all-too familiar way. As the season of New Year's resolutions approaches, what to eat and what not to eat are, as always, high on the agenda.
The annual debate in our family begins in the run-up to Christmas, and is about the size of the turkey. As the chef, I favour a small, naturally-reared bird, and like to prepare it the way the French do, with a flavoursome chestnut, apple, salt pork and fresh herb stuffing, bound together with a couple of eggs.
The other members of my family want a huge turkey - like the one Scrooge sends to the Cratchit house at the end of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. A turkey that, to Scrooge's delight, following his conversion to generosity, is so big that it "never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax", and which had to be dispatched in a cab because it was too big for the boy charged with the philanthropic errand to carry to Camden Town.
From a table of plenty...
The enormous turkey is also a key part of the American Thanksgiving dinner we sometimes share with one of my sisters and her family in California - too big to fit in the oven, so, roasted over charcoal and hickory wood chips on an over-sized barbecue with a domed lid, and lovingly tended by my American brother-in-law outside in the garden.
The issue at home, though, has practically nothing to do with the taste or style of the Christmas Day meal itself. What my family wants to be sure of, is that there will be lashings of leftovers. I may insist that the slivers of truffle slipped carefully under the skin of my modest 10-lb bird give it a delicate flavour which complements the tart apple of the stuffing, but for my family what matters is that in the week after the Christmas meal there should be a whole series of occasions on which we get to consume what we failed to eat on the day.
Cold turkey with leftover cranberry sauce on Boxing Day, and turkey sandwiches with copious quantities of pickle and mayonnaise the day after, followed by turkey pie, turkey casserole, and finally, turkey carcass soup. Leftover roast potatoes can be reheated in the oven too, and my husband is quite partial to refried Brussels sprouts.
Under everyday circumstances I am keen on leftovers myself. I love to cook inventively, and find it a special challenge when I come home in the evening to find that the fridge contains nothing but the remains of the previous couple of days' meals, out of which I must create something tempting for supper. Turning the bits and pieces into a risotto or a hearty soup gives me enormous satisfaction, and a sense of being frugal.
... to plenty of leftovers
The cookbooks of the 1960s and 70s were particularly good on recipes to use up what used to be called scraps. Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking - first published in 1960, and my culinary bible when I was a graduate student - has a whole section headed "Les Restes - The left-overs". It recommends that left-over chicken and turkey be used in pilaff and in stuffing for paupiettes de veau, and I've successfully tried both.
Today's cookery enthusiasts are more likely to turn to Nigella Lawson for inspiration. She too has a passion for leftovers, and I love the way she describes her own response to the leavings from the Christmas meal: "To tell the truth, I'm happy to eat them standing, leaning on the still-open refrigerator door, for my finger-picked breakfast, but I love the culinary fiddling to which they can lend themselves with great satisfaction."
In recent years, however, something has begun to change where the housewifery of unconsumed food is concerned. Where once we were urged to clear our plates ("think of the poor starving children in Africa," my mother used to insist), now we are told it is good for us to stop eating as soon as we are no longer hungry.
Just as not eating absolutely everything used to be a matter for moral reproach, now finishing up every last morsel of food is beginning to seem almost culpable.
Just as not eating absolutely everything used to be a matter for moral reproach, now finishing up every last morsel of food is beginning to seem almost culpable
We are enjoined by doctors and health advisors to chew slowly, stop eating as soon as we feel satisfied, and push the remainder of the meal to the side of our plate as part of today's conviction that otherwise we will all end up overweight. Being overweight, we are told, is the cause of practically everything that is currently a cause for concern in society, from burdening the NHS, to increasing the likelihood of getting cancer.
I remain an unreconstructed plate-clearer, and will continue to revel in what can be done with a few bits of cold meat and some yesterday's gravy. And my commitment to the ingenious use of leftovers involves a corollary. In order to have leftovers to be creative with, you have to have cooked a proper meal from first principles the previous day. There are only cold scraps where once there was something delicious and hot.
All over the country, especially in homes where both partners go out to work, the meals put on the family table have usually been purchased ready-made, the quantities perfectly judged for the modern appetite. There is nothing left over from meals such as these - indeed, we are told to discard the whole thing once it passes its sell-by date.
And younger working singles or couples, shopping in their lunch-hours for such meals, have neither the time to prepare a dinner from raw, individually selected and purchased ingredients, nor the knowledge of cookery to do so. For many, Christmas is one of the few remaining occasions on which a meal is created from fresh ingredients, and consumed by the entire family, sitting around the festive table together.
A French friend of mine told me recently that at the Paris primary school her two small sons attend, serious cookery has been introduced into the curriculum for boys as well as girls. At a nearby restaurant, the chef and his staff instruct eight- to 10-year-olds in how to prepare classic items from the French repertoire of cooking, and then how to present and serve them.
Is cooking is a skill we are losing?
At the end of term, the parents are invited to the restaurant, where one half of the class waits on them, while the other half cooks. Without such a conscious intervention, the school believes, the fine art of French cuisine will be entirely lost within another generation. Cookery is, I suspect, a dying art in this country also, though it is no surprise that the food-loving French should have noticed before us.
I entirely understand that obesity is an increasingly prevalent medical problem that threatens to overwhelm the already over-burdened NHS, but advising us to leave meals unfinished is surely not an answer.
Food waste is, in any case, already a recognised problem in Britain. Enormous amounts of packaged food we bring home from the supermarket get jettisoned without ever being eaten. According to a survey by the government watchdog Wrap published earlier this year, we throw away a third of all the food we buy in supermarkets - that is more than three million tons of wasted food each year.
So, as usual, my New Year's resolution this year will be to avoid chocolate and go regularly to the gym, to keep my weight strictly under control. I have generally managed to break that one by about the first week in February.
But this year I am also going to promise to resist the temptation of stopping off after work at one of the three convenient local late-opening supermarkets, to purchase a beautifully presented prepared meal, whose package graphics and accompanying text promise me a piece of culinary artistry, redolent with the fragrance of exotic faraway lands.
Instead I resolve regularly to take the time to shop in advance, and cook from scratch, with real ingredients, selected with care from the increasingly attractive choice of fish and meat, vegetables and fruit in the local shops. So excuse me while I dash off to prepare that turkey soup my family is eagerly awaiting.
Below is a selction of your comments.
How true! It always irritates me that people can't be bothered to spend a little time preparing a meal from scratch, but then moan about the high fat and salt content in ready meals. I work full-time, as does my husband, but I make a proper evening meal every day and manage to have it on the table by 7pm. It doesn't take that much longer than preparing a ready meal, tastes much better and is healthier. BTW - I'm only 36, but I too was brought up to clean my plate and not waste food
Jo Vowles, Isle of Man
As coming from an overseas family and having always seen food being prepared every single day from scratch I can't find more intriguing how anyone could possibly enjoy or prefer ready meals. I agree with yet another well known chef who pleads that a proper meal from scratch doesn't need to take long, most of my own everyday meals take just 30 to 45 minutes to prepare, sometimes just as long as it'd take to do a run to the shop to buy or to defrost one. I disagree with the argument that poor families can't afford cooking from scratch as this is exactly the reason why in most poor countries ready meals are not so well spread as it is in Britain or America. As for leftovers, I can't bear throwing anything away, even if it's a portion of rice or vegetables, as you can always stir-fry them for instance. My partner is not so keen in keeping leftovers, he can't see as much use for it, but he does it due to my constant nagging (think of the children in countries such as where I come from!!). Eating slowly is better than eating fast so to appreciate food, but it only works with good, healthy meals. As for being a fat nation I doubt the speed has anything to do with it as some of my colleagues tell me they eat take away meals two to three times a week, no wonder they're fat or unhealthy! Eating healthily, as everything else, comes from upbringing. Perhaps this is the answer, to start teaching the families instead of blaming them.
Lisa Smith, Scottish Borders
Yes, cooking properly from fresh ingredients does take longer, but if you cook enough for two or more meals and freeze the extra portions then you've got some home cooked ready meals for another day!
What's wrong with putting a smaller portion on the plate, that is more manageable. That would solve the whole "leaving food on the plate" business. There is no need for such greed. Resist such gluttony, and learn about portion control. The phrase "eyes bigger than belly" springs to mind.
Clare Parkinson, Lytham St Annes
It isn't a matter of eating too much or wasting food if you don't put too much on your plate in the first place. If you often find yourself with this dilemma (or feeling too full or scraping the plate into the bin) give yourself a smaller portion next time. If someone always leaves the Brussels sprouts on the side -don't give them so many! Many of us don't like to reuse scraps from the dinner plate, but when it hasn't been served up it's fine to store in the fridge for lunch the next day.
Jenny Em, Aberdeen
Raised in the 1950s by a mother who made waste a crime having spent the war years making rations last and in a house with no 'fridge, as a family we all cleared our plates (and no-one left the table until we had all finished) and I still abhor the waste of wholesome food (and any food which is not being eaten by humans either goes to the dogs, cats, guinea pigs or the compost bin). Childhood conditioning has made me a natural greenie.
Susan, Brisbane, Australia
Well said! I am sick of this spoilt, profligate society that revels in squandering the Earth's resources and spending money on what they don't need. A bit more appreciation of food and frugality is exactly what we all need. In the UK we simultaneously scoff and waste vast amounts as if we have no love of food, but rather some weird kind of hatred for it! If we learn to love food, savour it, not waste it and eat frugally we will all be the better for it.
Iain Fraser, Herne Bay, UK
"especially in homes where both partners work meals are purchased ready made" - why? It is perfectly possible to prepare a chop or other lump of meat and 2 veg and have the meal on the plate in under 30 mins. Pasta and sauce ditto. It is so simple to produce a nourishing meal from fresh ingredients, but, the manufacturers of ready meals try to blind us to that fact.
Tony B, Birmingham
Leftovers rule in my house. Sunday is a roast chicken. The meat is then used for any other meal during the week... stir-fries and pasta sauce, or a good curry. If there seems an over-abundance of meat AND more veggies than will fit in a salad, a chicken and veggie pie is made at the end of the week. I try not to throw out anything other than bones and the bits you just can't eat from vegetables. Leftovers make great lunches and shouldn't be frowned upon. But do I over-indulge? Nope. My husband and I aren't over-weight. We clean our plates, too.
Jessica O, Lisburn, NI
Since becoming single again in my mid-fifties, I have faced the problem of not being able to buy, at reasonable prices, quantities small enough to feed just one person. The need to use a mixture of the same ingredients, over a few days, to create meals which are identifiably different, has been an enjoyable challenge. Successes are repeated at a later date and failures are consigned to the bin never to be talked of again!
Linda Tarr, Bristol, UK
Amazing how many media types make a virtue of lifestyles that the most of us regard as normal. No time to prepare fresh food from raw, selected ingredients? Is five minutes for salad, ten for steam vegetables or a minute to open some bread and cheese really so hard?
More Lisa Jardine please! I consider her as great and interesting broadcaster as Melvyn Bragg's. She also has a great talent for turning the ordinary everyday aspects of life into a most interesting and thoughtful consideration - an analytical approach without the tedious academic approach of some.
John Andrews, email@example.com
I love the idea of French children being taught how to prepare and cook dishes. At GSCE I studied Food Tech - the only vaguely 'cookery' option available - which doesn't teach you how to make a roast or organise leftovers into a stew. It teaches you what scientific processes occur when you whisk eggs, replace sugar with sweeteners etc. That goes some way towards explaining why I am only capable of cooking pasta at age 25. The thought of doing anything with leftovers leaves me cold because I wouldn't know where to start or what you could possibly do, apart from shove it in a sandwich and bin the rest.
Perfect example of lazy journalism and deductive logic:
1 - I don't know many people that cook from scratch
2 - My friends don't know many people that cook from scratch
3 - Therefore NO-ONE cooks from scratch and NO-ONE cooks with leftovers because there aren't any.
I would be more convinced and appreciative of this article if I felt Lisa had referred to studies or evidence of the eating/cooking habits of the population. The majority of people I know (mid-20s) get home from work and cook from scratch. However, I wouldn't write an article about how this was evidence of a wider cultural phenomenon without research or evidence.