Food & Drink

How to love your leftovers

Pat Salani, 73, is the self-proclaimed Leftover Queen.

“I guess I was just ticked off about waste,” she said by phone recently, when asked to explain why she sent a list of her favorite meal-stretching tricks – unbidden – to the Chicago Tribune. “We have a thing about wasting.”

Like everyone else, Salani has been reading stories about the economy and feeling the shock of rising grocery prices. And yet all around, she sees people throwing away food.

She finds that extremely hard to watch. “When people right in our area are hungry? It's obscene,” she says.

Leftover Queen is probably not a title many people are capable of wresting away from her. She and her husband, Bob, 76, who live in Niles, Ill., are most likely a lot thriftier than any of your friends and neighbors, and we could all learn something from her.

For instance, she freezes cooked rice, and can make three dinners out of a rotisserie chicken (including soup). She feeds Bob and herself quite well with leftovers from their thrice-weekly $25 restaurant dinners (with one cocktail each) by filling in with staples from the grocery (where one of her pet peeves is that it's so easy to confuse sell-by dates with use-by dates). Their two sons were good plate-cleaners as children. “You barely had to wash their plates,” she says.

Her husband is the kind of man who will bend over while walking down the street to pick up a washer if it still looks usable. “He's really crazy,” she says, laughing. After they got married 46 years ago, Bob found a rusty old waffle iron in an alley and brought it home, which appalled Salani. But he fixed it up and cleaned it until it looked new.

“We still use that waffle iron today,” she says.

Salani is not sure how exactly they both got this way.

Maybe it's because they were both children of second-generation European immigrants – she, Polish, with relatives who “had absolutely nothing” but would produce beautiful meals for guests; he, “very Italian,” with a mother who was widowed young with two kids and understood the importance of a giant pot of sugo (also known as spaghetti sauce, or “gravy”).

Maybe it was raising two boys who “ate like truck drivers” on a tight budget. “There were treats. The boys were not hurting – they just didn't walk around with food in their mouths all the time, out on the streets, everywhere they went, like people do today,” she says.

And maybe it was growing up with a mother who often reminded them about the Great Depression.

Today, Salani realizes her way of thinking is foreign to a lot of people.

“Economizing is a throwback,” she says. “Some people are not comfortable with it. But it doesn't put you on a lower social level.”

Perhaps a big turndown in the economy could return thriftiness like Salani's to its former dignity. It was, after all, once considered wise rather than eccentric. But she's not counting on it.

“People don't even realize they are wasting,” she says, sounding resigned. “They get tired of what they have, and they want something new. Our economy is based on that.”