This poster hangs above the stove in a friend’s kitchen (he’s on tumblr now and you should follow him). It was part of a collection produced by the US Food Administration to remind Americans to conserve resources during World War I.

Nos1 to 4 are smart, but I take issue with No5 - serve just enough. The word serve assumes a family or guests or more people eating than just the cooker of the food. When serving food I was always taught that rule No1 is to leave no one hungry. It is inviolable. It requires maneuvering. It requires an alchemy in the kitchen – the magic of making something from nothing, or little. You have to make more than what you have. Soups, pastas and beans to help with a small amount of meat or fish. It requires nimbleness and agility, even in times of want.

No member of my family was on US soil during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, in that first quarter of a turbulent twentieth century. They were in the middle of Italy and they were in the northern tip of Spain. It wasn’t until well after the Second World War that any of them fled the scars of their home countries for the promises being sold in this land of plenty. They brought with them the knowledge of how to make a little go a long way. It was one of few items toted.  

Serve just enough. I like it in concept, and in my more generous moments I can overlook the problematic verb serve. I am a saver, a thrifty person. I will risk sickening myself through rot or mold before throwing something away. Wasting money and wasting food offends me, deeply.

No6 rescues the whole list, and I like to think of one dissenting voice in a smoky room full of artists and propagandists, government men and reformers, stern members of the military. I like to imagine a bearded pest of a man insisting on use what’s left. It is in the using what’s left that you learn to cook, where you learn to combine what is not obvious. It is where massive failures and huge successes occur. It is where dogma and script are traded for the possibility of magic – a magic never possible if your serve just enough. So, serve a little more than you should, friends, because you never know how long peacetime will last.

[Image: Poster from the kitchen of two friends, one of whom is now on tumblr. Check him out here: http://tidalriverhouse.tumblr.com/. He’s writing about building a home. Some of the practical but more of the abstract.]