The Rotten Dinner Invitation

“Do you want to come over for dinner? I’ve got some ground beef that’s getting ready to go bad.”

That’s the worst dinner invitation I ever received. Granted, it was years ago, not so far removed from college days when any invitation of free food was not to be looked down upon. It wasn’t meant as a joke. It was a sincere invitation, not meant to be repulsive, only meant to be pragmatic. I don’t remember if I even went. Still, I remember that line, and I’ve thought about it mischievously, sarcastically, over the years when looking at dates on ground beef packaging. “Ooh, this one’s getting close to the use-by date. Who can I invite over?”

Sometimes statements and actions strike us as repulsive, funny, infuriating, because they hit close to home. I’ve been thinking about this one lately. Not because I want to make hamburgers for friends and family with red meat that’s dangerously close to being on the cusp of going rancid. I rarely eat meat anymore, and when I do, I try to make sure I haven’t balanced my toes on the inbounds/out of bounds line that separates healthy meat from spoiled meat. When it comes to vegetables, though, it’s a different story.

Maybe it’s because I have a litter of children and a husband to feed. Maybe it’s my Midwest upbringing and learning to use what was on hand. Maybe I’m progressive about not generating unnecessary waste. Possibly, I’m cheap. Whatever the reason, my menu planning these days revolves around whatever vegetable is the closest to its demise. Mind you, I’m not using rotten fruit (of course, not—I cut around the rotten parts!), or wilted lettuce (definitely not—there’s no way to cut around that). I am looking to buy in season and use as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible in my cooking, which inevitably leads to fresh fruit and vegetables decaying. It means buying what happens to be at the market that day and figuring out what to do with it, rather than the thinking of a dish and then buying the ingredients.

Yesterday morning I had the modern day version of that long ago dinner invitation for the bad beef, only it wasn’t an invitation. My neighbor was going away for a few days and she showed up at the door with a bag of homegrown tomatoes that she felt wouldn’t make it until her return. They were already hand-me-downs before they reached me: a friend in her husband’s golfing group had given them to her.

By noon, they were minestrone soup. I needed at least three or four things to add to them. . . I found an onion, a carrot, a celery stalk and some cauliflower in the refrigerator, a can of kidney beans and box of broth in the pantry, parsley from the garden box, some pasta shells. Lunch for today for me, packed lunch for the husband tomorrow, dinner for the kids tomorrow night.

Hello, family: “Do you want to come over for dinner? The golfing buddy of the neighbor grew some tomatoes and had too many and the neighbor’s leaving town for a few days and all those tomatoes will be rotten by the time she gets back. So I’m making a pot of minestrone.”

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