For the Love of Leftovers

This blog series has been about my discovery of UK culture, but this particular article is inspired by a recent trip home to the States – a trip that showed me I have lived in London long enough to view aspects of American culture, once normal and unobserved, in an entirely new light.

How could you waste any of this?

It happened at a restaurant. My sister Caylie was three-fourths victorious over her platter of pasta but just couldn’t finish. Soon, our over-efficient waitress would surely hover behind her, grabbing what could be tomorrow’s lunch and throwing it atop the mound of other people’s half-eaten dinners. I began to mourn for the thickening dab of garlic cream sauce and the whorls of fettuccine, and it wasn’t even my meal.

Sure enough, the waitress snuck up on us like a ninja and began to clear the plates, the greasy cutlery, an empty breadbasket. She hovered behind Caylie, and I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to watch it go. We (OK, my grandpa) had paid for the food, and I wanted to keep our leftovers. For all that was happening I might as well have emptied my grandpa’s wallet into the waitress’ hands and told her to shove that in the bin too. That’s how horrible I felt.

But then I caught a question amidst the restaurant racket, words that had become greyed out in my memory because I hadn’t heard them for so long:

“You want a to-go box for that?”

Wait, what? Where am I?

“Sure,” Caylie said. She lifted our plate away, but I didn’t care anymore that I wouldn’t be the one to eat those still perfectly edible leftovers tomorrow. I studied my surroundings: my grandpa scrutinising the bill, my dad telling a “dad-joke” to the not-impressed Caylie—and I was sure now I wasn’t dreaming. I’d gotten on the plane, sat in a cage for eight hours, gotten off the plane, and here I was with my family, happily full of pasta in the land of to-go boxes. When I saw the box—complete with cardboard flaps—floating over to the table that had asked for it, the niggling memory of my leaving a local pub in England with my risotto wrapped in a squarelet of aluminium foil, the bartender’s glare stabbing at my back, faded slightly.

Although I’m sure some restaurants in Britain offer to-go boxes, here is my logic for those who don’t. I may start a campaign.

  1. You’ve already paid for the food, so why not take it with you? (Buffets are the exception.)
  2. Without the to-go box, you may well overeat because you don’t want to waste food you’ve paid for.
  3. To-go boxes actually allow you to get two meals out of the two meals’ worth of food you’ve been served (America is not the only country that serves oversized portions). The £15 you’ve spent on dinner could also cover tomorrow’s lunch.
  4. Every year in the UK, 18 million tonnes of edible food end up in landfill. It’s worse in the States: 34 million tonnes in 2010—due to the larger population, or just over-buying? Just imagine, this figure might have been even higher, if not for to-go boxes.

Maybe this rant comes to me so easily because I grew up getting excited about leftovers. My gap year team couldn’t understand that I’d rather eat the previous night’s roast chicken for breakfast (protein, lasts you till lunch) instead of Rice Krispies (puffed air, lasts you until you arrive at the office). Some food even tastes better the second time around. When you’ve got to choose between a sandwich or yesterday’s spicy sausage and mushroom lasagne for lunch, it’s really a no-brainer.