A Theology of Leftovers

October 14, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Living in a consumer culture means that you can have exactly what you want at any moment. However, it also means that you are bombarded with choices, none of which are particularly better or meaningful. For instance, if you are craving pumpkin, you can have it. And thanks to products such as canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and pumpkin spice syrup, you can appease your taste buds through a variety of pumpkin-flavored foods all year long.  However, if you do so, you may come to realize that there is nothing particularly special about the pumpkin pie that decorates your family’s Thanksgiving table. After all, you did just have pumpkin pie a few days ago…

Oftentimes, it is the limitation and not the limitlessness of something that makes it special. Gourmet desserts, presents, parties, vacations, deep conversations, and so many other treats are appreciated for their scarcity.  Because they don’t happen every day, they become sacred to us, and we delight in them when they are present.

Such human characteristics are not unbeknownst to Starbucks, a company that seems to reflect more on the behavior of individuals than the individuals themselves, and Starbucks knows just how to trick, nudge, and delight us through the illusion of limitation. For instance, while Starbucks could easily provide Pumpkin Spice, Eggnog, and Gingerbread lattes year round (and at many stores, often will when asked), it markets these drinks as seasonal specialties, and even devises contests where cities can compete against each other to get these drinks put on the menu early.

Now, on the business level, this is very profitable, as their release of the beloved drink often leads to runs on their coffee shops. However, on the personal level, Starbucks also knows that these conditions are very pleasing to the loyal customer, who looks forward to even the mere hint or concept of a sacred ritual.

But unlike seasonal drinks at Starbucks, food (just plain food) is rarely seen as sacred. Unlike the Israelites wandering in the desert, waiting for heavenly bread, many Christians have only ever known food as it is in excess. We toss half of our burger and most of our fries away (even if we do go to the trouble of putting them in a “take home” box). Farms throw out crops that are misshapen or discolored (that is, undesirable for supermarkets). And grocery stores and restaurants chuck tons of leftovers in the trash rather than risk any liabilities associated with donating. And these practices are not benign, but only help breed a culture where wasting food is normal, and comments about starving children are trite.

Now, before you accuse me of setting the stage for an argument in favor of some ascetic lifestyle, in which your relationship to food becomes that of an inverse glutton, let me just say that restriction for its own sake is similarly void of meaning. From off-the-grid green fanatics to organic-only raw foodies to anti-consumer minimalists, the idea of restriction is often romanticized to a place of religion, and serves as a sort of spiritual law that brings a sense (though not necessarily the existence) of order to their lives: If I only eat food that I grow myself and that isn’t tainted by “chemicals” or “additives,” I will have “arrived.” If I recycle, compost, and keep light and gas usage to a minimum, I will have “achieved.” If I get rid of clutter, resist the urge to buy things, and take time to quiet and simplify my existence, I will have “transcended.”

And yet, as Christians, we know that such trends are only poor replacements for a soul that seeks to be perfectly restricted by God (what Augustine sees as the ultimate form of freedom). As we pursue this type of life (a life of service to God), the purposes of restriction become clearer.

As it pertains to food, restriction teaches us to appreciate the fact that food is a gift from God, disciplines our hearts to be good stewards of this gift, and encourages us to consider others when we have been blessed with excess. In more specific terms, it might foster the following habits, which again, should not become laws that are set in stone, but should be used in ways that are beneficial to the Christian life:

1) Be Resourceful:

Rather than going to the store for every meal, focus on what you already have. If you open a can of pumpkin, be committed to that can. This was a recent adventure in my house, where what started with adding one tablespoon of canned pumpkin to my morning oatmeal turned into “what is going to become of all that remains in that can?” Twelve pumpkin donuts, 24 pumpkin cookies, and 1 pot of potato pumpkin curry later, waste was averted, and not to the detriment of our taste buds either.

2) Be Creative:

Reuse Food. If you have leftover soup, use it as sauce for a pasta salad or make up some rice to pour it over. If you have a leftover meat source (steak, chicken, meatloaf), cut it up and put it into something new (salad, pasta, casserole). Even if you have trouble coming up with ideas on your own, there are plenty of websites that provide meal generators based on the ingredients that you type in.

For your convenience, some foods can even be made into desserts, which can be used on the same night as the meal. For example, my husband and I often use leftover white rice to make “Rice Au Lait” (alternatively spelled “Rice Olé”) which is an horchata-like dessert drink (Recipe Below). Another favorite of ours is the leftover sweet potato (the one that didn’t make it into the casserole), which can be baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar.

3) Be Generous:

When you have extras, share. This is especially applicable to baking, because, when you bake, you are undoubtedly going to end up with extras. So instead of leaving that container of 3 dozen cookies on your counter, where it will either get eaten (accompanied by stomach pains) or will not get eaten (“I guess we better throw these cookies out”), why not share them with someone else? This is truly the best part of baking anyway, and the only reason anyone would put in all the effort of reading directions, measuring out precise levels of ingredients, and checking on their treats every five minutes until they are golden brown.

4) Suck It Up:

If you have extra of a dish that is hard to reuse (lasangna, stir-fry, etc.), and it is too late to bring a warm portion of it to a friend’s house, freeze it for next week and actually reheat it. Or, just bite the bullet and eat it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until it is gone. Perhaps you will also consider not making so much the next time you get the recipe out.

Recipe for Rice Au Lait:

Ingredients: Rice, Milk, Sugar, Cinnamon

1) With at least one cup of leftover rice, put rice into a small or medium saucepan.

2) Pour milk over the rice until rice is covered. (You can add another layer or two of milk if you prefer your dessert to be more of a beverage)

3) Turn heat to medium/low.

4) Add at least 3 tablespoons of sugar and stir. (Add more sugar according to taste)

5) Add at least 1 tsp of cinnamon and stir.

6) When sugar and cinnamon have mixed, remove from heat and pour into cups. Enjoy!

*Picture taken from: http://www.countryliving.com/cooking/pumpkin-dessert-recipes