For many years of my life it was impossible to cook too much food. With three kids and all their friends constantly raiding the refrigerator, not only did leftovers disappear quickly, but often so did the ingredients we were saving for dinner. But, with the kids grown, when Sue went out of town and left me to fend for myself this month, I was suddenly aware of the fact that I could cook whatever I wanted for myself, and the leftovers would still be there tomorrow, whether I liked them or not.
We both enjoy cooking, but Sue is much better at it, and more creative than I am, so when she’s around I’m usually the prep cook and clean-up crew while she whips up amazing, never-before-seen dishes using fresh herbs and vegetables from her garden (and every mixing bowl, pan, and spatula in the kitchen). Rarely does she repeat a meal exactly, there is always some new dish to add to yesterday’s wonderful soup, stew, or cassoulet, or some new mixing of the delicious contents of the many containers in the fridge into wraps, sandwiches, omelettes and more.
Left to my own devices, I first work my way through the Niçoise salad she’s left behind for me. Eventually, though, I am forced to consider what I want to cook for myself. Ingredients are not a problem. Actually, ingredients are a problem, because Sue’s garden keeps up its prodigious production even when she’s not around. There is simply no way to eat all the food ripening in her garden at this time of year. Even just watering and picking it all becomes a major enterprise. If she were around, she’d probably be canning, freezing, or pickling the surplus, but as I warned her before she left, I am not volunteering to take on such a burden in her absence. “Just give away the food you don’t want to eat,” she reasonably tells me. But there’s nothing reasonable about her garden. There are baskets of tomatoes that need to be picked every day, mounds of zucchinis and cukes, vines dangling with beans and peas, lettuces threatening to bolt, and a jungle of kale, chard, collards and many other vegetables and herbs that I don’t even know the names of.
I do my best to harvest the bounty, but then what? How much lettuce, arugula and spinach do I need for my daily salad? How many radishes, carrots, beets, and peppers? So, after a morning spent picking and swatting at flies, I begin the task of trying to give away the surplus. Here’s the problem with trying to give away food: People wonder why. If those tomatoes are so great, why don’t you want them? What’s wrong with those eggplants? This is especially true of neighbors or friends that you’ve never tried to give food to before. “So, your choice was either to give me that basket of zucchinis or make compost out of them, right? Well, aren’t I the lucky one?”
To relieve the awkwardness of trying to explain my situation to anyone on the street who is willing to answer their doorbell and assure them that I don’t consider them to be charity cases because of some gossip I heard, I feel obliged to stick around long enough to have a pleasant conversation. This can go on for hours, especially if they are retired and because no single household is willing to take on the task of dealing with 20 zucchinis, 30 pounds of tomatoes, and the bushel of miscellaneous vegetable matter that I’m carting around.
Suddenly I’ve switched from being a good and generous neighbor into being a somewhat pathetic door-to-door peddler. I see neighbors whose names I can never quite remember peeking out of their curtains at the dirty, sweaty, somewhat dazed looking man in overalls schlepping a wagonload of produce, while they decide whether to answer their doorbell or call the authorities. When I finally finish my neighborhood rounds it is time to return home to cook supper.
I’ve still got plenty of produce left and if Sue were around, I’m sure she’d whip it up into an amazing summer feast that we’d eat out on the patio with a bottle of chilled rosé. But if I take all this food and turn it into, let’s say, a pot of soup there’d be more than enough to eat for every single meal until Sue returned home, if it didn’t go bad before then. Or I suppose on my giveaway trek tomorrow I could offer jars of it to some of the neighbors, but if they were reluctant to take fresh homegrown tomatoes off my hands, how likely is it that they’d want some bachelor cook’s leftover gazpacho? Besides, I’m exhausted from all this chatty neighborly charity.
The veggie burger and fries I ate at the diner were delicious. And best of all I was able to convince the waitress to take the rest of today’s crop of zucchinis!