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Monday, February 13, 2012

Just Do It Over (3)—Back of the Fridge

Last Wednesday I took a hunk of beef and browned it in a little olive oil—just enough to make a frying pan scene that looked a bit like a painted rock. Then I took a big ol' cabbage and quartered it. Next, I took the knife to a small purple cabbage and changed the color scheme a bit. Finally, I cut up two red onions and seasoned the whole wad of food before tossing the lot into a Slow Cooker and going off to do other things for ten hours.
[b] Sunday dinner, Monday bento RF

Late this afternoon, looking around the crannies of the refrigerator, I saw it again. It looks a little different today. And this got me thinking. What will it taste like now? Indeed, how do we—across the world and in different societies—think about leftovers? You see, leftovers are a kind of edible do-over, aren't they? And what, exactly, is a leftover? Is unused butter or margarine left over? Most of us would probably say "no." What about salt and pepper that go back on the shelf? No. Sugar, flour, tahini? No. What about half a pizza? Yup, absolutely. The possibilities are legendary, if not endless. 

Half a bottle of beer? Well, let's hope not. 

I am saving the concept of "doggy/doggie bags" for another day, because they deserve a "do-over" post of their own. Today, we're talking about food prepared in homes and sometimes re-eaten there. American culture, like almost every other one in the world, has both a complex array of associations for the leftover and multiple voices used to articulate them. They can be thrifty, surprisingly delicious, and (dude, that is so) gross. An auto insurance commercial currently playing on American television makes use of some of these images.

[c] Mashcakes RF
So, I repeat. What's a leftover? If I am convinced of anything, it is that the edible possibilities are usually best covered in the negative. We may not be sure about what exactly is a leftover until we ask ourselves. We surely know, however, when something is not.

And that is where I will leave this entry for the day. I would appreciate comments that extend our understanding of edible do-overs, tasty, neutral, or otherwise. My wife just told me about one of her favorites (one that her mother prepared when she was young)—mashed potatoes made into a delectable kind of potato pancake for dinner the next day. In Japan and China (across highly diverse culinary traditions), leftovers have a role to play in breakfast. The rice left in a Guangzhou pot last night is a ready source for a thin breakfast gruel in the morning. Fish left on the tray in Nara has all the markings of a tasty breakfast dish of vegetable-rice porridge and fish balls (see [f] below).

[d] Breakfast? RF
You get the idea. All over the world (and Round and Square has readers in at least eighty countries), leftovers are good to think with...if you're hungry.

Let me know what you like...and what you detest. It's probably personal...and cultural.

Just to make the cultural point as clear as possible, let's conclude with a snippet from a classic ethnography, Roy Rappaport's Pigs for the Ancestors. Here, we have a scene from the end of a great New Guinean pig festival called the konj kaiko. It is not hard to see that everyone is eating (salted) leftovers.

Pigs for the Ancestors
Roy Rappaport (1968) 
The pig festival comes to its climax in the konj kaiko, when salted pig belly is publicly presented to allies and the pave, the ceremonial fence, is breached...By mid-afternoon the dance ground was packed with spectators and dancers; attendance may well have exceeded one thousand people by the time that the heroes' portions of salted pig belly were presented.

[e] Salted ADV
In the late afternoon all of the Tsembaga, with the exception of married or widowed women and infants in arms, assembled inside the pave enclosure and the presentation packages of salted fat were heaped behind the pave window. Several men climbed to the top of the structure and from there proclaimed one by one to the multitude the names and clans of the men being honored. As his name was called, each honored man charged toward the pave window swinging his ax and shouting. His supporters, yelling battle cries, beating drums, brandishing weapons, followed close behind him. At the window the mouth of the honored man was stuffed with cold salted belly fat by the Tsembaga whom he had come to help in the last fight and who now also passed out to him through the window a package containing additional salted belly for his followers. With the belly fat hanging from his mouth the hero now retired, his supporters close behind him, shouting, singing, beating their drums, dancing.[1]

[1] Roy Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People Second Edition (Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, 2000), 216-217.
Rappaport, Roy. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People Second Edition. Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, 2000.
[f] Unending cycle of food RF

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