Eat Your Leftovers

At long last, it’s 2020. What a peaceful, round, even-looking number for a year that will almost certainly be more chaotic than its aesthetically unsatisfying predecessor. (2019 just looks like someone forgot to finish something.) 2020 is an election year, and a critical one. The world is a mess that we’re doing a miserable job of cleaning up, and we’re running out of time before the environment gives up on us. Socially, politically, emotionally, every type of -ly, most people are either in the midst of an existential crisis or are willfully ignorant. 

Perfect time to throw away everything bad from 2019 and start anew, right?

I’ve only been on this beautiful, tragic rock for about twenty-eight years, but that’s long enough to become weary with the notion that all bets are off when the clock strikes midnight on a particular day in December. Sure, progress happens. People age. We schedule our elections, our medical appointments, our educational milestones based on the passage of time, but the passage of time alone does not grant us freedom from the past. Perhaps I’m nitpicking semantics, but I put very little stock in the wholesale rebirth or recreation of ourselves every year. We are piecemeal creatures who build upon our virtues and our sins to become each next version of who we are, and that cobbling together of the good and the bad of ourselves happens whether it’s 12:01 on January 1st or 3:54 p.m. on a random Thursday in June.

At the moment (and blessedly) my fridge is full of food. Some of it is healthy–husband has taken on the task of meal-planning our lunches, God love him–and some of it is not. Some of it could keep for weeks like the bagels our native Long Islander friend told us to put in the freezer, and some of it will go to waste like the oversized container of spring mix I (once again) convinced myself we’d eat. All of it will have to be dealt with at some point, and we will either enjoy it or we will sort through the rot with disgust. Either way, the longer we ignore the food that’s taking up space on the refrigerator shelves, the more likely it is that everything, even the most delicious leftovers of the moment, will become unpleasant. 

There are a lot of people who hate leftovers. That’s a foreign concept to me, who will put an egg on anything and call it brunch, so I can only guess at the motivations. Germophobia, maybe, or bad experiences with food gone rotten. Perhaps even a penchant for boredom or a dread of trying to revitalize the things of yesterday. Even I admit that there is a dopamine release that comes with a clean slate, a bag of  fresh groceries, an empty fridge to fill with new, healthy, tasty things. The fastest way to get there, of course, is to chuck out everything that could be considered old, whether or not it still has anything to offer, and never think about it again. The rub is that we could go through that same cycle of purchase, fatigue, and swift cleansing ten-thousand times and still not get anywhere near the root problem that we just buy too much food, or buy foods we won’t eat because we feel like we should, or don’t have a clue what to do with food once it’s been in the oven once. It’s not a crime to want tangible symbols of rejuvenation, but often our desires to start anew leave someone on the other side of the world, or maybe just a few neighborhoods over, to deal with the muck we slough off in our attempts to cleanse ourselves. Whether it’s the three day-old bread that’s growing stale or the person you’re not ready to forgive, tossing the problem in the trash doesn’t destroy it. It moves it somewhere else.

Maybe some of you are starting off the year with a clear fridge. Maybe you got your most troublesome ducks in a row before 12:01 on the first and you’re starting the year with nothing holding you back. If so (and I say this with sincerity), congratulations! I hope you accomplish amazing things. The rest of us, even if we desperately want to be newer, cleaner, different people, need to start with what we have. Pretending that 2020 will right the world simply because it’s a new year ignores the fact that we label time. We make the choices that define the moment, the month, the year, the decade, and all of our choices are based on the things we’ve learned up to now. Even if the bodies, the minds, the resources we carry from one year to another are burdensome, we don’t do ourselves or the world any favors by hating them, destroying them, or trying to pretend that they’re something they’re not. 

In my house, breakfasts for the rest of this week will be toasted bagels (a gift from our aforementioned friend) and dinners will be a hodgepodge of the greens we can salvage, a bit of pizza, or the jambalaya I made with ham frozen from Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to getting back on the whole foods train, but if I don’t eat the leftover pizza at all, I don’t ponder why we impulsively ordered it (stress, I was sick, we were busy). If I toss out the fast-fading spring mix without checking to see if any of it is edible, I don’t feel the necessary guilt of wastefulness that reminds me not to buy things aspirationally, food or otherwise. Flattering or not, the food I keep in my refrigerator tells the story of how I got to where I am right now. To throw away my leftovers without a second thought is to pretend my past decisions have no impact on myself or the world, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.

Neither the passing of a minute nor the depths of a trash can have the power to turn us into new humans. The best that a new year can do is inspire us to turn the mistakes we’ve made, the hurt we harbor, the things that weigh us down into the things that motivate us to do  just a little bit better, to care for ourselves just a little bit more, to give just a little extra to others. Progress is not the power to force radical change or build false utopias. It is what little we have in front of us used to the best of our ability over and over again.

It’s 2020. Do something good with your leftovers.

Need some leftover inspiration? Try my simple Pretty Much Just Chicken Casserole, wrap leftover proteins and veggies in Savory Shortcrust Pastry, or toss the veggies and greens you need to use in simple Dijon Mustard Dressing.

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