I watched the liquor swirl down the drain, steady streams from a double-fisted pour of old tequila and vodka. They mingled in the middle, chasing the traces of vinegar “cooking wine.” We were moving, which gave me license to kill. Any item in the liquor cabinet (OK, the stuffy cupboard above the refrigerator) that wasn’t a valuable vintage or at least half-full had to be drained and recycled. The sink smelled like a cheap party for days. But the smell saddened me.
Moves are tough, and cleaning the kitchen is downright traumatic for people like me who live there. I shed a lot of dreams during those final days of cleaning and packing. A pound of 8-year-old dried mint leaves hit the trash, a mute and musty testimony to the fact that I was never going to practice herbal medicine in any systematic way. Rancid tahini hinted of a certain indifference to Middle Eastern cookery (can I help it if my girlfriend doesn’t like hummus?). Bags of old bones and cheese rinds emerged from the freezer, revealing both an abundance of freezer burn and a complete lack of forethought about making simple homemade soup stocks.
Garbage as psycho-social index is not a new idea. Hell, half of archaeology is just someone else’s old garbage. As a culture, we manage to avoid the implications of our detritus by sending it down the disposal or putting it out in neat little carts. But the moment of truth came on moving day, when you have the support of triple-ply industrial-strength garbage bags to hold whatever you throw out.
Full-bore fridge-purging is liberating, but unsettling at the same time. It’s the flip side of those refrigerator readings that pass for pop psychology. Bags of slimy lettuce and overripe brie and ancient Tupperware filled with solidified old soup, it’s all grist for the mill, all part of the shadow self, asserting itself in spite of our best intentions. Rotten lettuce: trying to eat more salads, but can’t. Overripe brie: desires more glamorous dinner parties, but didn’t have the time. Moldy leftovers: wants to cook from scratch and in general be more thrifty, but craves more exciting tastes such as pizza and pad thai, the containers for which sit smugly empty in the recycle bin.
And never mind the moldy stuff, the stuff ruined through neglect. Take a good look at the goods that are still theoretically usable and admit that you’re never going to use it. Me, I didn’t count every half-empty jar of mustard, salad dressing, or Chinese hot-pepper paste that got tossed, but the garbage bag that held them was a heavy-enough indictment. “It’s the kitchen corollary of the one-year rule on clothes,” I told myself while meditating on a jar of sun-dried tomato tapenade that had been with us two houses ago. “If I haven’t needed it in all this time, then what’s the problem?” The problem is that I didn’t want to let go of the culinary desires that had inspired me to buy the tapenade in the first place, but now lay congealed like a layer of olive oil. I gently placed the jar in the now-bulging garbage bag.
Heaving the bag out to the curb, I realized the truth: I’m a kitchen explorer who bites off way more than I can chew, and there’s no shame in clearing out time-worn plans and dreams to make way for practical considerations. Sure, I could have kept that leftover liquor, as a sentimental reminder of my carefree college days. But I don’t drink like that anymore, and neither does anyone else I know.
Anyway, I need to make room in the new liquor cabinet for the Pernod that’s going to go in my next seafood stew. I can’t remember, does that recipe call for sun-dried tomatoes?
When in Doubt, Throw It Out
At its heart, cleaning out the refrigerator is mostly about food safety, which is one of those things that is hard to argue against, like child safety or more fuel-efficient cars. It’s such a sensible thing, especially the way the federal government puts it at the web page for Partnership for Food Safety Education, at www.fightbac.org/steps/doubt.htm. Bookmark this site, because it actually gives helpful information about a wide variety of foodstuffs. At the top of the page are the two biggies: 1) never taste-test food that looks or smells strange, and 2) toss the moldy stuff, unless it’s hard cheese, salami, or firm sorts of produce (which you can trim).
You can’t argue with that, but it doesn’t mean that you have to listen. Until you get one of those computerized refrigerators that track the sell-by dates on milk cartons, no one has to know that you don’t follow the rules of food safety to the letter. Food that “looks or smells strange”? Well, that’s all subjective, isn’t it? Some of the stuff I keep in my refrigerator already looked or smelled fairly strange when we bought it, by current community standards. How do you know when it’s past the gastronomically desirable weird and into the uncomfortably weird without actually tasting it?
The truth is, even if they’re opened, many products that are high in acidity, sugar, and/or salt can pretty much be stored forever, in or out of the fridge. But you know what they say: No regrets. No mercy. Cleaner fridge.