Scraps of onion skins, fabric, parmesan rinds, and other items
Credit: Joe Lingeman
personal essay

Scraps Are the Only Winners in This Pandemic

updated Apr 17, 2020
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Shopping less often and spending more time at home means cooks around the country have finally come to face down their freezers full of Parmesan cheese rinds, kale stems, and overripe fruit they squirreled away “to do something with another time.” Banana bread is trending; homemade stock serves as the base for so many dishes of hoarded beans; and the baby boom of sourdough starters has bred a sub-generation of sourdough-discard pancakes, biscuits, and crackers.

Meanwhile, amateur seamstresses raid their fabric scraps to make up for the shortfall in protective masks. Gig workers patch together income from the scraps of jobs and unemployment insurance. And parents try to piece together homeschooling lessons in the scraps of time they can find in between Zoom work meetings.

In this Wild West of a new world that we live in, the only winners are scraps.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What’s Old Is New (and Useful) Again

Home cooks have been saving scraps since the beginning of time. Even right before the pandemic people were saving and using kitchen scraps both of necessity and for environmental reasons. But the conversation over the last century, at least, has shifted. Convenience overtook cost in how many Americans cook, and the resourceful ways that previous generations used up their shrimp shells and cauliflower leaves fell by the wayside — or were at least stashed in the freezer for that potentially fictional “later.”

But that “later” is now, and the way Americans are cooking has suddenly reverted. The luxury of frequent trips to the grocery store for very particular missing ingredients is gone, and in our newfound time we’re babysitting slow-cooked dishes or folding and kneading bread every few hours. We’re digging in our freezers for long-forgotten fish heads and mounting fresh investigations into the crusted-closed pickled jars in our refrigerators.

The introduction to Jill Lightner’s book, Scraps, Peels, and Stems: Recipes and Tips for Rethinking Food Waste at Home, seems prescient to our current situation. In it, she talks about how President Herbert Hoover threw lavish White House dinners in the 1930s, telling the press that “nobody was actually starving,” while New York City breadlines were serving 85,000 meals each day. “So many headlines today bring that story to mind,” she says. “Scrap use is a habit, second nature, I think, to anyone with a need for (or sense of) frugality,” she notes. “With so many wretched economic things happening as part of the pandemic, that need is the highest I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

This need for frugality, to make our scraps actually work for us, is one that some American cooks have taken lightly but now it has returned, coupled, Lightner says, “with a sort of forced Home Ec curriculum.” 

For the Gen X-ers who grew up fearing nuclear war and the millennials who graduated high school around 9/11 and college into the Great Recession, this feels — resignedly — like something they’ve been training for. Leslie Seaton, a project manager in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, says her freezer was already stocked with bread ends and limp grapes. “I think a lot of people have this innate sense that everything is going to fall apart at some point.” So for years she’s added aging vegetables to vinegar in the hopes they would find a second life as a pickle. Now, says Seaton with a hint of vindication for her personal hoarding habits, “I feel like I’ve entered into quarantine with a variety of flavor options.”

And for those who didn’t come in prepared, the planning starts now: When New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner tweeted, “We’re all regrowing our scallions, right,” the 1,000 responses, 2,000 retweets, and almost 35,000 likes indicate that, yes, we most definitely are — along with our celery, lettuce, and leeks. “For the short-term, it’s lovely that people are learning new skills and rethinking their patterns as part of how we’re navigating the stress,” says Lightner. “In the long-term … well, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

But the thing about using scraps is that somewhere — in the bits of children’s outgrown clothes being made into protective face masks, and old bags of chicken wing tips simmering into stock — is a sense of optimism. The alliums shoot up fast and green from jars of water, and the zip-top baggy of celery (so freezer burnt it’s nearly unrecognizable) still gives life to matzoh ball soup. Scraps are the only winners in this pandemic, but maybe if we hold onto their coattails, we, too, can grow back to where we were before — or become something even better. 

Scrap Cooking Recipes to Try in Your Kitchen

Food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. Follow her on Twitter @Gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome.