How Pandemic Lunches Gave Me Hope for the Planet

Leftovers. Leftovers may be the key to saving the planet.

During the pandemic, there has been a lot of chicken. Chicken thighs with skin and bone and chicken thighs free of both. There is rotisserie, purchased precooked from the store, and whole raw chicken roasted on onions, carrots, and potatoes. It’s almost every dinner. But it’s not the dinner that’s the solution to climate change. It’s the lunch.

My kids, Max, who just turned 11, and Zoe, who is 15, have lunch in my kitchen with me every day now. In the Before Times, they packed their own lunches, took them to school and ate in the privacy of their own cafeterias. And before that, I packed their lunches with cheese sticks or yogurt tubes, berries, pretzels, granola bars, tiny Tupperwares of nuts, goldfish crackers, carrots.

But now, I am working at home while they are schooling at home and, in between Zoom meetings, we each make our own lunches. Yesterday, I ate slices of chicken breast with avocado on top. Max made himself sliced apples and sharp Cheddar cheese. Zoe made what she always makes: mixed greens, a red bell pepper, carrots, sweet potato, cucumbers, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, and slices of chicken breast. She tries to get nine colors on her salad. She remembers from the game we used to play when she was 3 years old. It’s hard to hit nine colors of vegetables, but she gets close. Sometimes, she adds corn.

This is all very wholesome of her. Compared to Max and me, she’s a walking multivitamin. But her pandemic achievement is that she does not let food go to waste. She remembers her half-cut-up red bell pepper from yesterday. She roasts four sweet potatoes on Monday and eats half every day. For breakfast, she makes Generation Z’s claim-to-breakfast-fame: avocado toast. She uses only half an avocado, saving the other half for the next day. Max, although less invested in color eating, makes cheesy rice from last night’s dinner topped with leftover Cheddar, and a leftover baked potato topped with a pile of lettuce.

It’s reminded me that we who contribute a majority of the greenhouse gases, yet do not suffer immediate consequences of global warming, have the privilege of planning our meals with endless, aspirational nutritional advice.

It wasn’t until I was at least 30 that I aspired to make the most of that privilege, and the leftovers in the refrigerator. There was a stigma, and maybe a whiff of icebox dullness, that attached to foods stashed in Tupperware or sandwich bags.

At the height of my cooking ambitions, I made mussels from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook, using the mussel broth in the recipe, reserving the mussels themselves for another use. Since I do not actually cook dinner at the French Laundry every night, I had no plans for mussels-the-next-day. But cold mussels dipped in crème fraîche do make a very lovely lunch. It was then that I became ecumenical about leftovers.

We take the same basic stuff and rearrange it according to our needs. Leftover chicken becomes a chicken taco, chicken on a salad, chicken in the hand as you prep for your next Zoom. Last night, I made farro e pepe from a New York Times Cooking recipe, leaving me with the extra paste of Pecorino-Romano and pasta water ready to fold into the next batch of scrambled eggs.

As I worked in the kitchen after the meal, I thought about Rolf Haldron’s book “Environment,” which is part of a series of books about the hidden lives of ordinary objects. He talks about the things in our homes — the cleaning supplies, the nonstick pan coatings, the plastics — that don’t break down in the environment.

I met Rolf, who works for the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, when I was writing about how microorganisms can reduce pollutants. He’s an expert on things that microorganisms cannot get rid of, that persist in soil and oceans and in our bodies. They are the foods we didn’t mean to eat. They are the leftovers in the refrigerator that got pushed to the back, where they turned moldy, inedible, and toxic.

When Rolf and I talked about microorganisms and the limits of what they can do to reverse the damage humans have done to the planet via chemistry, he made a case for what he called green chemistry — that whatever chemical compound you invent, be it antibacterial soap or plastic bags or surgical masks, you must insure that the chemicals break down in the environment. You must follow the reactions to the end to make sure the chemicals return to their natural, unmanipulated state.

As I make another Thomas Keller recipe for dinner, chicken and dumpling soup — this one from the “Ad Hoc at Home” cookbook, which is meant for home chefs, meaning fewer reductions of mussel broth — I will use an already roasted rotisserie chicken. I will add ends of carrots and celery to the broth. His recipe requires a pâte à choux for the dumplings. I will compost the egg shells. I will boil the bones to make a chicken stock. If there is any soup left the next day, I’ll eat it all. The broth will be good for albondigas soup by Friday. I will eat the crumbs from the tortilla chip bag because the opposite of hoarding is the joy of getting to the bottom of a bag of chips.

There’s still a lot of work to do. I should probably go easy on the poor chicken. I should think about the water it takes to grow a single egg. I should buy the glass food containers instead of Rubbermaid. But as I see Zoe willingly scrounge the back of the vegetable drawer to make sure she uses that last sprig of parsley, I have some hope for the future — maybe we can teach new microorganisms to love the taste of old plastic. Maybe we can, before we even begin to cook, imagine what kind of garbage we’re leaving behind and make the goal be no garbage left behind at all.

It wasn’t until I was at least 30 that I aspired to make the most of that privilege, and the leftovers in the refrigerator. There was a stigma, and maybe a whiff of icebox dullness, that attached to foods stashed in Tupperware or sandwich bags.

At the height of my cooking ambitions, I made mussels from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook, using the mussel broth in the recipe, reserving the mussels themselves for another use. Since I do not actually cook dinner at the French Laundry every night, I had no plans for mussels-the-next-day. But cold mussels dipped in crème fraîche do make a very lovely lunch. It was then that I became ecumenical about leftovers.

We take the same basic stuff and rearrange it according to our needs. Leftover chicken becomes a chicken taco, chicken on a salad, chicken in the hand as you prep for your next Zoom. Last night, I made farro e pepe from a New York Times Cooking recipe, leaving me with the extra paste of Pecorino-Romano and pasta water ready to fold into the next batch of scrambled eggs.

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