The Pleasure of What Remains: Thanksgiving and Leftovers

Things can be better the second time around—including pasta, turkey and love.

Posted Nov 24, 2019

Leftovers are not only the best part of Thanksgiving; for many of us, leftovers are actually the best parts of life.

Most people won’t mind if you’re reaching out for what remains after they’ve made their first choices. I learned early that if you focus your appetite on what others don’t want, you’ll feast every day. And here’s the secret: small pieces and trifles scraped off the sides, have the best flavor.

I live for scraps. I want the bits: the burnt parts, the crispiest pieces, the gravy, and the bones.

When Bruce Springsteen sings on the “Tunnel of Love” album about the way that “spare parts and broken hearts” keep the world turning, he gets it right. That which functions meticulously, elegantly and impeccably is not what we’ll find at either humanity’s core or the center of most kitchens.

What is leftover, keeps.

Delicacies have to be consumed the moment they’re presented or else they can kill you. Would you like salmon mousse served on thinly sliced avocado seven hours after it was plated? Not if you want to spend the next day upright. How about if I throw some stuffing into the gravy and heat it up? Want that for a snack? I make stuffing from stale bread. There is basically no expiration date.

Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, is all about leftovers. Celebrating gratitude, bounty and harvest, Thanksgiving is about the relief you feel when you having more than enough. That signature sense of satisfaction is ideally braided with the recognition of both community and interdependence.

Thanksgiving is also, of course, about imitating the first feast offered by native peoples to uninvited visitors who ended up surprising them by Being People Who Would Never Leave. In this manner, they set the pattern. Thanksgiving is indeed the holiday of people who never know it’s time for them to go.

One of the primary reasons you want them to go is so that you can start on the leftovers.

With leftovers, you can help yourself. “Help yourself” is a wonderful phrase because it works in every context: You can use it as a rebuke to those who are lazy, you can use it as an invitation to those who seem hesitant and, if you’re Tom Jones in 1966, you can use it to turn yourself into a sex object rather than turn women into one.

Helping yourself to leftovers means not waiting to be served, not having to stick to certain portions and not having to balance your diet. To eat leftovers, you don’t actually even have to sit down. The food is up for grabs—sometimes quite literally. Turkey that had been served beautifully, eaten gracefully, savored over the course of hours and discussed as a delicacy on Thursday can, by Friday, be eaten while being held in one fist while the other hand is grabbing a can of diet soda from the fridge.

There are, in fact, a number of book series called “Second Chance at Love.”  I’d like to start an imprint called “Second Chance at Lasagna.” Let’s just say that it would have a wider audience. We could modify the food themes as well. For St. Patrick’s Day, there would be “Second Chance at Potatoes” and the obvious choice for Thanksgiving would be “Second Chance at Giblets.” Second helpings can lead to serendipitous pairings: they’re the blind dates and meeting-cutes of the food world.

Sustaining works of art have been created from what’s been put aside, thrown away or leftover.

If Thanksgiving is about following recipes and cooking inside the lines, leftovers are about cooking and eating outside the lines. We can employ the language of those in marketing and instead of calling them leftovers, refer to them as previously loved, environmentally friendly, gently used and repurposed.

While nobody wants food that’s been around so long it can be labeled “collectible,” a lot of leftovers have some serious shelf life. Mistakes in preparation of leftovers, far less serious than errors in the original main meal, can lead to delicious inventions. Think turkey tetrazzini, pot pie, and a club sandwich.

There's enough to go around if you're inventive, courageous, and willing to wait.

And some things are simply better the second time around. These include pasta, turkey and love. Help yourself.