When I was growing up in my parents' home, finding something to eat in our perpetually packed-to-the-brim refrigerator was a delicate — and at times disgusting — operation. If I wanted yogurt, for example, I could usually find some. Of course, the expiration date had come around about three weeks ago, but what of it? Cheese was plentiful and varied, as long as I was willing to scrape off the mold before I ate it. I could usually find a few bits of still-edible greens among the slimy muck inside a long-expired Dole Express bag. There might even be half a filet mignon (from a month ago) or some well-seasoned leftover chili (first served two weeks earlier, best I could remember).
"Mom," I'd say, "isn't this chicken salad from last summer?"
"It's fine," she'd say dismissively. "I had some the other day."
In fact, the most common words uttered in our kitchen were: "Taste this." Taste this and tell me if it's rancid, is what we meant. Taste this and if you don't die in the next 30 minutes, I might have some, too.
It wasn't until I met my husband that I realized not everybody had my family's cavalier attitude about food and its longevity. When we married and began sharing a refrigerator, it ended up providing a backdrop for many of our earliest marital disputes.
"What are you doing?!" I'd ask after catching him furtively dumping half a lasagna down the disposal. "I just made that three weeks ago!"
"You can't eat three-week-old lasagna!" he'd say incredulously. "You'll get sick!" I begged to differ. I had eaten three-week-old lasagna before. The fact that I'd had cramps and vomiting afterward was entirely irrelevant.
For a few years, we went back and forth on sell-by dates and whether they were open to interpretation. "The date is there for a reason," he'd say. "Yeah," I'd agree. "The reason is that they want you to buy more milk! Duh!" But one day, everything changed.
I had a baby.
Suddenly, playing refrigerator roulette wasn't so appealing. It was one thing for me to suffer through 24 straight hours of diarrhea after wolfing down a salad with two-year-old blue cheese dressing. It was another thing altogether for me to inflict that kind of pain on my child. Within no time, I had completely reformed, throwing out anything that seemed the slightest bit off, even if the expiration date was still good.
Hubs, obviously, was pleased that I had crossed over to his way of thinking. We spent many a cozy moment making goo-goo eyes at each other as we passed the milk and roast beef back and forth, smelling it to determine whether its time had come.
After a few years of this, you can imagine the jolt of nausea nostalgia I felt upon returning to my childhood home for a visit one summer day and rooting through the refrigerator for a drink for my 3-year-old.
"I need to go to the grocery to get some milk for the kids," I said a day or so after we'd arrived.
"We have some in the fridge," my dad replied.
"Yeah, but it expired a week ago."
"It's still fine, though," he insisted. "Taste it."
I paused for a moment, considering. Maybe he was right. Maybe the milk was absolutely fine. Then again, maybe he was wrong and my son would end up turning green and projectile vomiting that milk all over my new Hermes knock-off bag.
"I need to go to the grocery," I said again.
At the time, I felt like the typical smug, adult child, benevolently putting up with her befuddled parents and their outdated ideas. But as it turns out, Mom and Dad may have the last laugh. I read an article recently that milk typically keeps until a week after its sell-by date. Sour cream lasts two or three weeks after the sell-by date. Eggs are good three to five weeks after their sell-by date.
And now, more than ever, I'm beginning now to see the appeal of my parents' philosophy. At 35, my own sell-by date is approaching a whole lot faster than I'd like. Soon, I'll be relying on those around me to trust their judgment and realize I've still got lots of shelf life left, regardless of what my packaging might tell them.
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