Food critics have an unhealthy relationship with food, and I’m not talking about our tendency to carry around unwanted pounds like a pack mule. I’m talking about something more shameful and fraught with incrimination: leftovers.
Leftovers should be a simple, end-of-meal procedure, right? You dine, you eat till full and you wrap up the remaining morsels to take home and reheat for lunch. But when you consume calories for a living, leftovers are not so easy. They’re not just a chance to spread the bounty (and costs) of one meal to another. No, they’re potential guilt trips or even signs of our privilege and warped priorities.
Allow me to provide an example from earlier this year. I was dining with a friend at a Nepalese/Indian restaurant. As usual, I over-ordered so I could sample a wide variety of dishes. One was a goat curry. I loved it but ate less than half of the portion. Knowing I had more restaurant meals ahead of me, I declined the server’s offer to box up the curry to take it home. I didn’t want to load up my refrigerator with leftovers — not to mention the container and plastic bag that carry them — only to throw them out a week later when they start to reek.
But I couldn’t explain any of that to my server, not without hinting at a profession that places me in restaurants daily. So seeing no valid justification for wasting the goat curry, our server just stood there at our table, looking dumbfounded. She stood there for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time. Then I caved.
“You’re right,” I said. “We should take it home.”
Outside on the sidewalk, I turned to my friend and said, “I think we were just goat-tripped.”
But who can’t understand our server’s reaction? In the kind of restaurants I frequent, often run by immigrants from countries without the runaway food waste found in America, such silent judgments strike me as the only logical and moral response. I’m the one commiting a crime here: I’m casually tossing calories and nutrition that could sustain others, as if the world’s banquet table fed everyone the same.
Now here’s the shameful part: When considering whether or not to take leftovers, feeding the hungry is not my highest priority, even when the hungry may be just our small household, including our beagle, who is always hungry. (That’s not a joke.) My priorities are not to clutter our fridge with food we will never eat and not to fill our trash bin with untouched meals (and the packing materials they came in); or, conversely, to bring home only food that’s appropriate for an aging hound or for a spouse who likes vegetarian fare for lunch.
In the heat of the moment, however, those priorities often fade into the background as I repeat the same head-pounding behavior: I have the server wrap up the leftovers, lest I offend the hard-working family that prepared my dinner. It’s a total ruse, or “fake take,” as colleague Hanna Raskin, food writer and critic for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., calls it. On more than one occasion, I have tossed the leftovers into the nearest trash can. It’s disgraceful, I know. It’s an act more contemptible than actually offending the restaurant owners in the first place: It’s willful waste disguised as human kindness.
There are easy ways around my tabletop dilemma, of course. I could foist off my leftovers on the people I’ve invited to dinner. That is, if I can find someone who wants to dine in south Alexandria or Laurel on a Tuesday night. I could also download the LeftoverSwap app and offer my excess food to any takers, but handing over half-eaten goat curry to a stranger in some secluded parking lot strikes me as a Darwin Award moment waiting to happen. (LeftoverSwap is not the only app in the wide world of food-sharing, though it might not be long for this world, based on the many problems a colleague encountered when testing it.) I could take a cue from Kevin Pang, a food writer for the Chicago Tribune, who regularly gives his leftovers to the men and women who beg for spare change near the newspaper’s office. But even that approach can backfire.
“I once brought back a nearly intact lobster roll with black truffles that cost $40,” Pang e-mailed me. “Thinking I was this magnanimous gent, I offered it to a homeless man, who asked what it was. When I told him, he waved me off and continued shaking his cup of change. Picky eater.”
Pang is fortunate. He doesn’t live in a city that has banned people from feeding the homeless in public spaces or has made it difficult for them to do so, a trend even more heinous than fake takes. At least 22 cities have passed such restrictive laws, whose goal is to “hide homeless and visibly poor people from public view and drive people out of downtown,” says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
As an individual, you may either have to break the law or find someone at a nonprofit organization who’s willing to bend the rules so you can donate leftovers. Many nonprofit groups that battle hunger will not accept your restaurant rejects because they cannot guarantee the food has been stored and handled properly while in your posssesion. Legally, food donors to such charities are protected from civil and criminal liability by the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, but not if a victim can later prove “gross negligence.” Poor food handling could fall under gross negligence, says Foscarinis.
Do hurdles like those, then, let me off the hook? Can I toss my fake-take leftovers in good conscience, knowing that our fearful and litigious culture doesn’t want them anyway? My gut says no. The goat-tripping, after all, remains etched in memory. I want to find a way to share the wealth of my table with others, but it must be a relatively convenient solution. Because otherwise, it won’t become a habit.
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