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Day 26 in a month of writing: When Good Food Goes Bad

coke

On the radio the other morning a show host was disappointed that her morning yogurt had expired a few days earlier. After tasting it she confirmed that indeed it had gone bad. A lot of people might question how one actually can tell when your curdled dairy product is in fact too curdled. It’s like with cheese getting mold on it, if it were not for mold we wouldn’t have cheese in the first place. How does one know if the fungus growing on their mushrooms is good or bad?

I can tell when a loaf of bread is ready for the trash, either it is turning green or growing a white fur. Meat turning green or gray is a sure indicator that it needs to be tossed and bulging cans are a clear warning sign that something needs to be pitched!  When items in the freezer develop an additional layer of frost I am usually ready to part with them. Over the years I know I have thrown out plenty of edible food simply to be “on the safe side”.

I am however somewhat skeptical of the need to put an expiration date on some beverages that never had them when I was growing up. You pay extra at a liquor store for items that have aged twenty or thirty years and yet in recent years there has been a trend to put consume by dates on products like beer. As a kid born during the Kennedy administration I have no doubt that I drank Coke and 7-Up that was bottled during the Eisenhower presidency. I remember it being stored warm under the basement steps of any relative older than my own parents, an item to have on hand in case guests stopped by. I can hear the “pppfff ” of a warm bottle of pop being opened with a bottle opener in the days before twist-off caps and picture the dance of tiny bubbles.  You can find expiration dates on some soda now too. I think it is planned obsolescence, a marketing tool to make you dispose of good merchandise so you can buy more.

I have recently began putting dates on spice containers when I purchase them. We have bought sage nearly every year of our marriage before Thanksgiving under some false idea that we are running low. How much cumin can you really go through? Yet when a recipe calls for it I always question if we have enough. Yes, in fact we do. On a cooking show recently a cook shared that the potency might decrease but spices typically don’t actually “go bad”. Spices, what served as currency in world trade and traveled around the earth in the belly of ships and we are throwing it out under some false idea that your dash might only taste like a pinch. I say throw in another smidge!

I am not one to frivolously waste things but I am okay with tossing a box of Jello if the coloring on the box is faded. I have to stop myself when I come to the box of Jiffy Corn Bread mix because I think they printed all of their boxes in ’62 and it looks like you should throw it away directly after removing it from the shelf at the grocery store. Cereal is a crunchy item that gets stale (if it lasts long enough) but if they haven’t been opened I am fine with Saltine crackers regardless of their shelf life, I’m just breaking them into my soup or chili anyway. If they are crisp enough to make a pile of crumbs I’m good with that.

Despite increased knowledge and updated processing and packaging of food it seems that more foods have expiration dates than ever before and that shelf life for foods seem to be shorter than ever. How is it that jars that women canned at home lasted longer in their cellars than canned goods which were produced using a threshold established by the FDA?

It really only takes one bout of food poisoning to convince you that you don’t want to eat spoiled food again. In recent years it has rarely been the canned goods or packaged foods that people get sick from, it’s fruits, vegetables and most often the sprouts! I’m not saying there isn’t science behind the suggested use by dates, I am just not convinced that they should carry any more weight than the evidence gathered by a quick whiff of an open jar or a small taste of a questionable item.

I heard recently that eggs may actually be something that as long as there is not an imperfection in the shell or some damage could potentially be stored indefinitely and may actually not require refrigeration. Ketchup and mustard sit out in restaurants but most people refrigerate them at home. We keep our dairy in the refrigerator but the little half and half containers sit at room temperature in places where coffee is served. I grew up as a family that refrigerated our butter (later margarine) but I loved the soft room-temperature butter at my best friend’s house and that is the way my kids have grown up, with soft butter in a covered dish on the counter. It hasn’t killed any of us, yet.

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