I didn’t get to the supermarket for a few days after my arrival in Anchorage. Until then, I used the milk and oatmeal my hostess already had. When I mentioned that I’d be replacing what I used, she looked surprised.
“Uh, that’s really old milk. I meant to warn you off it,” she said.
It had tasted fine to me. That is to say, it tasted about as good as nonfat milk ever tastes – like the water they used to wash a cow. All that mattered to me is that it loosened up the oats in the bowl.
I nearly changed my tune when I checked the “sell by” date: April 5. It was then May 6. I was drinking milk a month past its prime.
Right about now your stomach may be curdling. The milk hadn’t, though. Linda B. bought it to fix a specific dish for Easter and then left the rest on the top shelf for the next month. It never left the fridge so it apparently didn’t have a chance to spoil.
I think we throw food away way too easily in this country.
Not good enough
In the past few months I’ve been making a serious effort to clear out the freezer and cupboards. Since I date the food I freeze, I know that the ground beef had been cooked 11 months previously and that the whole fryer was about a year old. I made bread pudding using shredded coconut that I know is at least four years old. I stewed some rhubarb that was going on five years old.
They all turned out just fine. If the ground beef had been dry I sure couldn’t tell after it was made into chili. The chicken produced copious pan juices. The rhubarb may (or may not) have been freezer-burned, but stewed and mixed with my homemade yogurt the flavor was as sweet-tangy as I’d remembered from previous summers.
This is not to say that we should let our food get old. My goal is to create a better (i.e., written) system so that the rhubarb doesn’t crouch down behind bags of frozen wild blackberries. But as a nation we turn up our noses a little too easily at anything we think of as substandard.
One MSN Money reader talked of a roommate who threw milk away on its sell-by date. He didn’t pour a little in a cup to sniff it for sourness, but automatically tossed it out.
I’ve also heard of people who throw away leftovers after two days in the fridge. Seriously? Cooked food won’t go bad in two days unless the fridge is unplugged.
Why not freeze things if you aren’t going to eat them? Why waste them?
Meanwhile, back in Anchorage…
I put the apples and oranges I’d bought into the bottom drawer of the fridge. (At no point did I compare them.) A couple of days later I sliced into a Sunkist and found it was partially frozen. The apples were, too. Since I knew they’d probably be mushy when thawed, I cut them up and cooked them into applesauce.
After Linda hosted her writers’ group we grazed for days on the leftovers. Almost a week later there was still a little roasted chicken left, so I turned it into what I can only describe as mock curry. It’d never pass muster in Madras, but I’m rather fond of the dish. But it was a little too thick, so I took Linda up on her offer to use anything in the cupboard. Before I opened the can of chicken broth I decided to check the “best by” date.
You guessed it: Old. Really old. As in “March 2002.”
The can wasn’t bulging and there was no suspicious odor. I stirred it into the curry and ate the one-pot-glop results off and on for a week. And I didn’t die. Not even a little bit.
Incidentally, what’s known as an “expiration date” doesn’t mean much of anything. They’re not even required by federal law except on infant formula and certain types of baby foods. When you’re talking dry or canned goods, the date means the end of peak flavor. “It’s just a quality issue,” a USDA spokeswoman told me. (For more information, see this USDA fact sheet.)
The way you look at food
I do have some standards. When mold grew on the last few slices of bread I gave it a Christian burial. The previous day it had been merely stale, whereupon I turned it into French toast. I should have frozen the rest before it got moldy. Next time I will.
A former co-worker who grew up in various Alaska villages would have cut off the moldy part and eaten the rest. That’s too much even for cast-iron-stomach me. Then again, he talks about eating eggs that “came over with Baranof.” He and his family also ate WWII powdered eggs up until the early 1960s. It’s a toss-up as to which oeufs were more dismal.
The point is they were food and the family ate it. When you’re a village kid, you don’t ever waste food.
That makes me a village kid, I guess, although the rural area where I grew up was referred to as a “township.” I was raised by a mother whose family lived much of the year on garden produce, dry beans, biscuits and white gravy and by a father whose family ate whatever his mom could grow and his dad could shoot. (As a kid my dad swore when he grew up he would never willingly eat another rabbit. He never has.)
My three siblings and I ate whatever was put in front of us – and quickly, too, because if you cleaned your plate you had a shot at getting some of the last little bit of potatoes left in the bowl.
Would we have dreamed of saying, “Eeewww, that meat loaf is three days old – I won’t eat it”? Oh, hell, no. (Not that meat loaf would last for three days with four kids around.)
Would anyone I knew have thought that milk too close to its sell-by date should be thrown out? Nope. In fact, we might have hoped it was close to its sell-by date, because it might be discounted. The freshness of bread was a moot point because ours came a dozen loaves at a time from the bakery outlet.
A couple of weeks before I left Seattle I found milk for 99 cents a gallon at the Asian market near my house. Its sell-by date was the next day. I turned it into two delicious batches of yogurt. And I still didn’t die.
I’m not saying that everyone has to eat the way I do. But I’m suggesting that you reconsider the way you look at “old” food, or at least at the buy-and-use practices that let food get old in the first place.
For example: If your fridge is full of mouldering take-out containers perhaps you could concentrate on finishing leftovers before bringing more food home? You could even learn basic cooking so you don’t spend so much money on food that you don’t even finish.
Or if you make a big pot of chili and get tired of it in two days, for heaven’s sake freeze it in small portions. Instant lunches! Or here’s an idea: Cook a smaller pot next time.
How many hours did you have to work to earn the ingredients? How much energy, fertilizer, pesticide and water did it take to produce and preserve the tomatoes, meat, beans and spices? When “old” food goes down the disposal those resources disappear, too.
Like your grandma said, people are starving in Africa. They’re also starving in the United States. It’s unlikely that either group would check a sell-by date before eating. But it’s pretty likely that the close-dated milk is still good.