Various and Sundry Poetry


If I had to come up with a food-related issue that I have, it's this: I have a bad relationship with leftovers. Mostly, what it is (I believe) is a fear of food-borne diseases. I stick almost religious to the expiration dates stamped on milk cartons, eggs, and other perishables. If the yoghurt goes a day over, I have no compunction about throwing it away. But leftovers are different. There's no expiration date stamped on them. You have to kind of decide when it's done occupying the prime real estate in your fridge. You have to take in all the sensory data to help determine the state of its freshness. And everything lasts a different amount of time in the fridge, even when properly stored. For example, leftover salmon has a very short fridge shelf life once the package is opened. I know because my father had a bad experience with leftover salmon once, years ago, when I was learning how to drive and he let me take the wheel from our house in New Hampshire all the way to Boston, and about 20 minutes into the ride he made me pull over so he could release the salmon back into the world. The experience was indelible, and I have never let any opened salmon container sit idly by for more than a day.

Also salad never keeps for more than a day, but the evidence there is purely visual. The lettuce has wilted into a sad, sorry state. Every vegetable, in fact, looks like it's moving into cronedom far too quickly and unnaturally, like those missing persons photographs on milk cartons where they've had to do age progression. So that's easy to throw away. But what about a chicken dish, which is almost always better a day or two later. Or rice, which, like pasta, also seems to keep for an indefinite period.

The problem is that I am almost always making too much food for myself. It's like I can't cook for one - something in me imagines a family of 6 sitting down with me in the evenings, and so I prepare an unseemly quantity of food, only to pour most of it into my now substantial collection of Tupperware. And the next day, like a good girl, I'll go into the fridge at lunchtime and see what I can get rid of. But then I'm over it. I don't need to have the chicken again. I'm finished with the stuffed peppers. Or it's too warm out for the soup that I made the previous evening, and so now it's going to sit in the fridge, gathering whatever soup gathers, and I probably won't want it again.

And I hate throwing food away. I do. I can't stand it when I'm catering and we have to toss the bulk of the leftovers into the trash. (Catering companies have this policy not to dispense food to their employees after the event's over, for reasons of liability or something). So at home, I always package up what I don't eat. But if I don't eat it the next day, and no one's coming over who might be interested in it, I don't want to keep it either. It's a culinary conundrum.

Let's get back to the fear of food-borne illness thing. I've heard plenty of stories from other people who think they "may have gotten sick" because of something they'd eaten which had seen better days. Or no, often they will blame it on a perfectly fresh food item and not realize it was the consumption of something totally innocuous-seeming which really threw their GI system over the edge. And it's true that about once a week (or ever two weeks, if I've been particularly negligent), I will open up the fridge doors and go in there as if I were part of the Sanitation Task Force and get rid of the items with a questionable life expectancy. And I'm noticing that some items just stay in the fridge because I've forgotten about them. Which is maybe the trouble with Tupperware in the first place. I need something determine the freshness status of my food. Like it's nearly impossible to figure out how long spaghetti sauce has been in the fridge. Unless there's a fine layer of mold hugging the surface, you really have no idea. Or lunch meat. A certain smell needs to come from the source to help you make an accurate assessment. Cheese is a problem, especially when it's already stinky and/or has mold on it because it's supposed to. What about things like hummus? tzatziki? risotto? polenta?

I read somewhere that honey is the only food that doesn't spoil. Which does bring me a small measure of comfort, I admit. I wish the list was longer than that, though. If I knew that butter had a flexible shelf life, I wouldn't get my nose dirty bending down at the dish and sniffing at it with such Agatha Christiean suspicion. I'd be eating it instead. Like normal people.