In the days when I was actively engaged as a songwriter, my friend Billy and I maintained the practice of sending each other three titles and four lines of verse every night. Each of the titles had to be able to be explained (“This song would be about . . .) and the lines needed to be attached to one of them. We were writing long distance in the days before email and texting, so we faxed our work back and forth, often in the early hours of the morning. I still have the notebooks filled with great titles whose ideas were never fully birthed.
My practice for a number of years has been to carry a Moleskin notebook in my back pocket, which is the receptacle for ideas, possibilities, sermon notes, grocery lists, reminders, addresses, and just about anything else that needs to be written down — including the occasional title, even though I haven’t written a song in a long, long time. Looking back through my notes on Italy, I found a title suggested by my friend Lori, who was one of the participants in our Days in the Villa. One morning after breakfast, she said, “You need to write one post called ‘The Week of Luxurious Leftovers.’”
Here it is.
A professional kitchen lives and dies on its food costs. One of the ways that you control how much you spend is by how well you use what you buy. When I managed the kitchen at Duke, we never had a big budget, so one of the things I learned how to do well was use ingredients in more than one way. In my kitchen at home, I have always enjoyed figuring out what to do with what’s left over, which is one of the reasons I love making soups. The best ones have no recipe, you just use what you have. One night at the villa, I made polenta that I baked and cut into squares and served with Chicken Limone and grilled vegetables (expertly grilled by Lori’s husband, Terry). At the end of the meal, we had polenta and veggies left over. For breakfast the next morning, I pan-fried the polenta, made a hash out of the vegetables by adding a little prosciutto, and poached some eggs to top it all off: uova della villa. Another night we took the left over risotto, formed it into cakes, dipped it in egg wash and bread crumbs, and pan-fried them to go with a roasted pork tenderloin. One of the most enjoyable parts of the week was figuring out what to do with what was left from before.
When I open the fridge to see what I have to work with, whatever I’m in, I work to think of what might be rather than what was. Sure, there are times when we reheat a dish as it was and eat it a second time, but I’m talking about finding the containers with leftovers that are not enough on their own or who have lost their companions. I try to think about combinations that were not there before, about ways the colors and textures and tastes of the foods can compliment each other and become something new, even though nothing is. So leftover polenta becomes a variation on eggs Benedict, several meals of leftover vegetables become an improvised minestrone, or pita bread becomes crust for a pizza topped with cheese and apples.
Life is about leftovers more often than it is about new things. Few of us ever step where no one has gone before, think things no one has thought, do what no one has ever done and (not but) we take the pieces of what has been handed down and used before and make something new with our lives. Both things are true. No one has been more before, just as no one has ever been you. The recipes of our lives, if you will, are new offerings when we choose to look for what might be rather than continuing to use the menus handed down. Our plates fill up with grief and grace, with hope and heartache, with joy and pain, disappointment, surprise, anger, compassion, longing and love. What we make of the leftovers is up to us.
The stuff I find in the fridge is easier to manipulate that the stuff that fills up life, certainly, yet making the most of the leftovers in either arena requires of me to take my time, to move deliberately, and — most of all — to make sure I have help. That’s right: don’t cook alone. Our week of leftovers became luxurious because we had time to make it so. The best dishes take time: healing, befriending, dreaming, loving.
Now, why don’t we can see what we can make of what we have left?