A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the value of leftovers

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 2, 2008

On Saturday evening, H and I were invited to an engagement dinner for a college friend of mine.

Its a non-traditional traditional Chinese engagement dinner, she told me. The traditional part was the food, of course, and the location – deep Chinatown.

We’re looking for a restaurant called the Golden Something, I told H as we wound our way through crowds of soggy tourists (its been quite rainy here).

That should be easy to find, H said. He had just arrived from Beirut a few hours earlier, and was holding up well despite the combination of lack of sleep, a long subway ride, and the pre-subway soaking we had received from round one of the thunderstorm.

The restaurant (complete with its gold-brings-prosperity name) was indeed traditionally Chinese, as were half the guests.

Hmm, I thought when we looked at the seating charts. I wonder whether the three tables of non-Asian friends are what makes it non-traditional.

The food was good, and mercifully toned down for squeamish eaters (my friend has told me what they eat at dim sum dinners, and as a semi-vegetarian I can say that I would find it hard to be a polite, eat-anything dim sum guest). And as the dinner wound down, my friend’s great-aunt appeared at our table, carrying a stack of Chinese food takeout containers.

You must take some of this home, she said, smiling but insistent. Have some for leftovers.

We all demurred for a bit, but in the end H packed up a box of chicken and I packed one of fish, which I polished off for dinner tonight.

Bringing out takeout containers was a sweet gesture of hospitality, and one that we all appreciated. But its a very culture-specific gesture – one that would never work in Lebanon.

My father would die if we took friends out for dinner and then asked for takeaway containers, H whispered to me as we filled our respective boxes.

He’s right. In Lebanon, one sign of hospitality is providing excess food – more food than anyone can eat, and whose purpose is to sit on the table after the diners are satiated. It demonstrates generosity, and abundance: the hosts have no need of the extra food.

Scraping uneaten restaurant food into takeout containers would suggest the opposite: that the hosts are either too poor to leave the excess food on their plates, or that they are stingy and plan to wring the maximum utility from the food they have ordered. In both cases, the message would be the same: the hosts are not only not generous, but they are also rude.

Two cultures, two approaches. I’m happy to have had the extra fish to eat – its a dish I couldn’t possibly make by myself, and I was delighted to have the chance to eat it twice. But I also appreciate the Lebanese idea of generosity – I like the idea that personal relationships are beyond calculation.

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3 Responses to “the value of leftovers”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Very interesting comparison, LIttle Diamond. I can think of some similarities – both Chinese and Lebanese always take pride in providing generously for the guests, more than anyone can eat. Both take pride in offering the very best, and in insuring that the guest is treated specially, and gets the very best morsels of what they have to offer. Both value friends, and relationships, and want them present on days of special importance.

    I remember, even in the US, even in Europe, when taking doggy bags was frowned upon. I prefer the frugal non-waste approach! It means cooking one less meal!

  2. Sparkle said

    Growing up, take-home containers weren’t even thought of (that I recall). I’m still not big on them, simply because they often wind up sitting in the fridge and don’t get eaten. But hey, when something is really, really yummy but I can’t eat one-more-bite, take-out containers are appreciated! At Earthling’s rehearsal dinner, I was so sad not to be able to take leftover desserts back to the hotel (no fridge), but was delighted to see people who lived in the area were able to do so(along with other dinner leftovers).

    As to the cultural aspect…when we have guests, I always feel compelled to make sure there is an overabundance of food, heaven forbid we run short on anything, even ice. And of course, there’s Mariner Man’s Greek influence – food is love!

  3. Salut tantes 🙂

    food is absolutely love – and I usually manage to clean my plate. But Big Diamond is a big leftovers fan, and I’ve had many great something-quick lunch meals made from the delicious bits of whatever she had the eyes but not enough stomach for 🙂

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