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Using Up Leftovers
by Christine Venzon

I'm tidying up the office after my last project, writing articles on ethnic Christmas traditions for a food encyclopedia. The books are returned to the library, the source list tucked in its file. But what do I do with these pages of research with the directions for cleaning octopus and the etymology of polenta?

Whether it's food or writing, leftovers beg to be used up. After all, you paid for them, if not in money, then in time and effort. To let them sit moldering is a waste of all three. As a professional writer, you can't afford that kind of loss.

Just like stretching last night's chicken into a chicken-rice casserole, stretching literary bits and pieces into another story takes a little creative thinking and some added ingredients. These recipes percolate through my head as I contemplate the scraps in my literary larder.

The World Wide Web

One thing I learned is that traditional cuisines are based on locally grown foods, meaning they're highly seasonal. That suggests a cross-cultural roundup of seasonal events. What does the potato harvest mean to people in Moscow, Russia and Moscow, Idaho? How does the mystique of the boar-history, hunting, and haute cuisine-in northern Italy compare to efforts to elevate nutria from swamp rat to specialty food in Southwest Louisiana?

Hemispheric differences lend themselves to compare-and-contrast pieces. For instance, an Australian Christmas comes at the start of their summer. A traditional celebration might include a backyard barbecue or cold cuts at the beach. How about a story featuring an Australian Christmas menu for an American Independence Day? Then again, Australians celebrate Australia Day on January 26. The weather resembles a United States Fourth of July, but the holiday foods are, well, worlds apart. Why?

Time and Tide

I found a fascinating treatise on the origins of modern fruitcake, from a ceremonial offering to a medieval, pepper-laced loaf. An article tracing the evolution of a similarly popular (or notorious) food or custom could be pitched to coincide with a suitable event. (Robert Burn's birthday is January 25. Remember that for your query on the history of haggis.)

Then there's the technology tack. I read that the ancient Romans carried out some pretty sophisticated fish farming. Today aquaculture is big business in Italy. What happened in the industry in the 2,000 years in between? What revolutions in preservation took us from pemmican to vacuum-sealed jars to modified atmosphere packaging? Can you find a kid-friendly experiment along the way-say, making fruit leathers?

Developments in the health and nutrition field offer a harvest of possibilities. Think the health claims made for chocolate are something new? The Aztecs hailed it as a divine elixir 800 years ago. Sugar was once considered a medicine. How did we lose that bit of ancient wisdom?

The Society Page

Food leads down never-ending sociological avenues. Take a recipe for apple cheese written centuries ago, when moms were home all day and could keep an eye on apples simmering on the stove for three hours. Today's mom may be out of the house more than she's in it. Can she still whip up this Lithuanian treat by starting with applesauce to cut down on the cooking time?

Or consider the advertising angle. Did "leading hospitals" actually offer patients the "wholesome buoyancy" of Coke, as implied in a 1969 ad? How have Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima weathered societal climate change to remain baking icons?

Edible Oddities

Stuffed fried eggs. Maggot-aged cheese. These local delicacies didn't make it into the encyclopedia. But think of the fun you could have with a story that explores different culture's "secret" foods. Give a call to a food scientist, and you have the fixings of a piece on the phenomenon of acquired tastes. If you're adventurous, back it up with taste tests. You just might awaken a craving for Vegemite.

And of course, there's the most obvious angle: how do different cultures use up leftovers?

© Copyright 2008, Christine Venzon

Christine Venzon is a freelance writer who specializes in all things food but takes work where she can find it. Her writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Sasee, Brio & Beyond, and numerous home economics books read by a captive audience of high school students.

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