Share this article on Facebook
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
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?
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
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.