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Shelf Life

One hour and four garbage bags later, the fridge and kitchen cabinets have been dusted, scrubbed, dumped, and organized.  

My kids are right.

There’s nothing to eat.

I’m wondering what possessed me to stock up on Triscuits like they could save the world or bags of unsweetened cereal that look like Styrofoam peanuts. I attribute it to the thrill of the unadvertised “special,” the promise of three for five dollars resulting in a maternal rush of adrenaline and precise mental calculating.

It’s like I’m watching a tennis match between the crackers and the cookies. I stand behind the grocery cart, eyes darting from box to box envisioning all the things I could do with three boxes of anything. Lunches? Let me at ’em! Appetizers? Absolutely! Then there are those middle-class back-of-the-box recipes and craft diva drawer organizer creations from the recycled cardboard. The truth is, I rarely have the time or energy for crafting more than curious prose on alternate Tuesdays, but I’m a shopper and a dreamer. The final score in the grocery aisle is based on how many people would benefit from my well-stocked pantry. In addition to myself, my kids, their friends, and my friends, there’s always my faraway family who might hop on a plane and show up on my doorstep unannounced and famished. Though that’s as likely as my teenage son throwing away an empty orange juice carton or chip-clipping the top of a cellophane bag of pretzel rods, it sticks in my craw like caramel, and I stock-up on frozen mini-bagels and string cheese.

If you add the plentiful food we don’t eat to the empty granola bar boxes feigning snacks, it’s clear that the problem is not only what I am storing, but how. Like the food at the back of the refrigerator. There I found many well-intentioned leftovers and jars of spicy mustard sitting next to a super size container of wheat germ and still unopened bottle of Kahlua circa 2002. Aside from a lucky piece of chicken or cold spaghetti, leftovers in our house remain left over—for days, weeks, months. In an effort to be green I sometimes thwart plastic ware for dinner ware covered with the evil nemesis of a once-eaten meal—aluminum foil. Since the food is then rendered unidentifiable, when it has been on the shelf longer than snow has been covering the patio furniture, I throw it out, bowl, foil, and all, no questions asked. Even though no one will eat it, food is not garbage when it’s still technically possible to do so.

With the leftovers gone and the catsups condensed, it’s still not easy to keep a fridge tidy. Take a muddled and mysterious tapping sound coming from the middle shelf, for example. I discovered the source just in time to take my daughter to school—a continuous trickle of flax seeds falling from their bulk-buying plastic bag. I did a courtesy wipe and sweep and held fast to the knowledge that one day when I removed all the drawers and shelves and liners and bottles and foods, I’d find Omega 3 strewn in every imaginable appliance crack and crevice. And I did. I then uttered those seven little words which I swore I never would, but obviously personify good housekeeping habits. “Leave me alone, I’m vacuuming the refrigerator.”

But hard work pays off. The light actually does illuminate the entire inside of the fridge and now we can plainly see that if anyone wants an orange, it’s tucked into the drawer with a bag of precut apples, which is much easier than trying to find them behind the spaghetti sauce on a shelf. If you’re looking for salami it’s in the deli drawer, not the fruit drawer with the onions and the milk is standing on the shelf in the door, not on its side to make room for the syrup. The cabinets are organized as well, but not compulsively—soups on one side, pasta on the other, flour and sugar on the very top shelf, with snacks close at hand. Now there is adequate space for boxes of things we will actually eat before they expire. I aim high.

Today I’m starting with a clean slate—although I’m sure before next weekend, along with the refrigerator it will be refilled. I’m hopeful the memory of hoarded Melba toast will make me reflective enough to make better choices.  

And since I’m on a roll, I’m also going to see what’s under the kitchen sink.