Love and Leftovers

My friends-the-caterers tell me that cooking for someone is the second most intimate human act. And, they tell me, you can tell a lot about someone by examining the contents of their refrigerator. If that's so, then I must be the reincarnation of my great aunt, Ida, a woman who couldn't bear to part with even the last tiny bite of leftovers—and this, before the age of microwaves and easy reheating. When we sat down for Sunday dinner at Aunt Ida's table, she hovered over us, shoveling bits of food from foil packs and plastic-covered bowls onto our plates.

"I had a little bit of squash left over from Thursday night," she'd say, or, "Those black-eyed peas we had on Wednesday sure were good," or "I had a little cornbread left from the church supper," as she scurried around the table, depositing leftovers.

I was the kid who ate anything, the practical family garbage disposal. And the interior of my refrigerator, now, looks just like Aunt Ida's, crammed with plates and bowls and packs of leftovers, all unmarked.

The interior of my friends-the-caterers' icebox, by comparison, is a vivid still life, a virtual Vermeer of chilly foodstuffs. A bowl of glowing lemons sits next to a jar of imported olives in purplish black brine. The produce bin is stuffed with locally grown gourmet greens, stalks of green onion, mounds of frilly parsley. Pink and orange fruit juices chill in clouded glass pitchers. Soup stocks stand waiting in covered Tupperware, the date and ingredients neatly marked on strips of masking tape.

Recently, I was the houseguest of a friend in New Mexico whose refrigerator speaks volumes. One evening, starving after a hike, we pulled out the leftovers and fashioned an impromptu meal. Here was the spicy enchilada pie, a gift he had been given the previous day. Here were the rice and beans he had served to another guest the night before. Here was the foil-wrapped quiche I had brought with me, a token of thanks for his hospitality.

As I rifled through his fridge, I found a jar of an exotic fruit and nut chutney, a gift, he told me, from another friend who always brought something delicious when she came to town. In the far recesses of the top shelf stood covered plastic bowls with mysterious contents, all leftovers, he explained, of dishes guests had brought over from time to time. I recognized the unique shade of mint green of a molded yogurt sauce I had brought down on a visit several months back.

This refrigerator chronicled the comings and goings of a far-flung group of friends who love to congregate in this funky little kitchen. Food gifts crowded the shelves. My friend's many friends, like me, wanted to give something of themselves to someone who gave so much of himself, sharing his home, his meals, his booze, his wicked humor and monumental heart.

We discarded as we talked and scavenged. He clearly didn't like to throw food out until it was beyond redemption. From the produce bin, I pulled out a tiny foil packet—a slice of tomato and onion, salvaged from a visitor's hamburger a few days back. He thought he could save it for the next evening's salad rather than waste it.

When I returned home, my refrigerator had that dim cast that comes from not being opened for days. Everything looked slumped and settled in its place.

A few weeks back, a longtime friend had stayed at my place while movers packed up her house and trucked the contents to a far-off city. She brought the remains of her refrigerator with her and crammed them into mine. Her Dannon mingled with my Yoplait. Her skim milk took its place next to our 2 percent. She left things we never bought at the grocery store—quart jars of jalapeño slices, three kinds of pickles.

She had recently married a man I barely knew, and these were the remnants of their newlywed marital larder. I discovered bags of frozen herbs from his last summer's garden—an excellent sign, I thought.

Back home from New Mexico, I reached in and pulled out a Mason jar of homemade bread-and-butter pickles, a gift from my friend and former houseguest, now settling into her new home in Nevada, stocking her refrigerator from scratch.

The label was faded, the date indistinguishable. They looked a little old, turning to gray, but I decided to keep them anyway.


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