My freshman year in college I decided to go home to Texas for winter break, as many freshman are like to do.
As the dorm would be shut down for the holiday, we were given instructions as to make our rooms "shut down ready." Locking the windows, throwing out perishable food, and unplugging all electrical devices.
This included the fridge.
My roommate left a couple days before I did, so I was left with the simple task of defrosting and emptying the fridge. All I had to do was take all the food out, defrost the thing, and go on my merry way. You'd THINK I could handle that. YOU'D THINK.
But the excitement of having almost a month of freedom after my first semester of college got the better of me (parties) and I found myself due to leave for the airport in a couple hours with nothing packed and a still chilly fridge.
With my friend Heather impatiently waiting for me to get my ass down to the sidewalk so we could make our respective flights, I figured there would be no harm in simply unplugging the fridge and hustling out the door. All I had in my room was "Lucky Charms" after all, there was nothing in the fridge.
So I did just that, caught my plane, and spent a glorious three weeks eating my beloved Tex-Mex food and picking up the occasional shift at the restaurant I had worked at in high school. Life was great, life was careless, college rocked.
After three weeks, I bid my goodbyes to Texas and flew back to St. Louis to begin the next semester fresh. FRESH.
Fresh was not the word that came to mind when I walked into my room.
As I unlocked my dorm room door, I was socked in the face by a putrid smell. The kind of smell that makes your eyes water, and your stomach threaten to revolt.
Upon walking into the room, I noticed that despite the freezing St. Louis temperatures, it felt slightly humid. Humid and rancid. "OH NO," I thought, "Something died in here!"
Inching around, my jaw clenched so as not to surrender the last bites of queso I had ingested before leaving Dallas, I peeked under the sink, in the closets, under the beds, looking for what I assumed was a dead mouse or R.A. or what have you.
Nothing. "Damn," I thought, "It's in the walls."
Then I stepped in the puddle. The puddle of murky liquid pooled around our tiny dorm fridge. Uh oh.
Like a co-ed in a slasher movie, opening the closet that I knew would contain my strung up boyfriend, I opened the fridge door. What I released was pure evil.
Remember how I only had "Lucky Charms" in my dorm room when I left? What do you eat with "Lucky Charms"? MILK.
I had left a half-gallon carton of milk in our not so expertly defrosted fridge for three weeks. In those three weeks, probably due to the heat being intermittently turned on so the pipes wouldn't freeze, the carton had bloated and popped like a corpse. And like a corpse, it spilled forth the second most vile smelling liquid I have to yet to encounter. (The first most vile smelling was from an actual corpse, by the way.)
When my roommate returned a couple hours after me, and after she rightfully hurled every obscenity my way, we attempted to rid our room of what we dubbed, "THE BEAST."
Of course I threw out the fridge, and obsessively scrubbed the floor, and bought every manner of air freshener our local Target could supply, but that did very little. THE BEAST had seeped into every corner of our room. Our clothes, our beds, our VERY SOULS stank of the evil. But it was too late, THE BEAST HAD WON.
We spent the rest of the very cold St. Louis winter with our windows open at all times, and carefully smelling each other -- "BEAST checks" -- before embarking on anywhere civilized. We were the smelly girls of our floor. My roommate took the opportunity, every time someone sniffed and questioned, "What the hell is that smell?" to explain how "Louise did it! Louise cursed us with THE BEAST."
You'd think after such a horrific experience with rotten food, I'd swear a lifelong allegiance to "best by" and "sell by" dates. You'd be wrong. As long as I catch no whiff of THE BEAST, I'll eat almost anything -- past date or not.
I don't know if it comes from my mother's influence of "Food is food, who are you to be picky? If you waste it, you may not have enough tomorrow," but discarding any kind of food that is still edible is one of the worst offenses to me. When I watch my husband only partially finish his plate of fries then decide not to box up the eight remaining soldiers, I feel a pang of guilt.
I see expiration dates as suggestions. I regularly eat yogurt a month or two after its expiration date, and cut chunks out of bread to avoid the mold. Yes, this has backfired on me a couple times, I once ate REALLY old yogurt that had a delightful "gritty" texture and THE BEAST punished my stomach for the night. But aside from the occasional misstep, I feel pretty confident about eating all the old food.
In eating all the old food, my primary tactic is the Smell Test. I'm no super-smeller, but I like to think of myself as "odiferously sensitive."
Once a food goes into that test subject area of a few days after best by, I get a-sniffing. If I catch even the faintest hint of rancidity or ammonia, I chide myself for not eating it sooner, but it's a goner. This tactic works best with sauces, dairy products, produce, beverages, and fish. (I don't eat land animals, but I've definitely lent my nose-powers to my husband's hamburger or my cat's raw chicken cat food. WIth meat, though, I'm a lot more conservative.)
There's also the Touch Test. Once something like vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, tofu, whatever, gets slimy -- out it goes. If what once was firm, is now overly squishy, it's also a no-go. Now, I'm not above occasionally salvaging the non-slimy parts and cooking them up -- I just did this with some spinach -- but it's not something I generally set my sights on doing.
Lastly, of course, there's the "How Bad Does it Look?" test. Usually if it hits the unnaturally gray, brown, black or green stage, the Smell Test or the Touch Test are moot. Fuzzy, oozing, or "bubbling" does not bode well either. Duh.
Eggs are difficult. I've read that if they float in water, they are bad, if they sink they are good. But what if they sort of, bob? And while I've definitely eaten eggs that are weeks expired (I've read they are good more than 30 days after the sell by date), I always wonder if I'll be punished for my indiscretion later.
Dry mixes like soups, breading, or sauces, I'm actually a little more wary of. If a dry soup mix is really old, I'll usually err on the side of tossing it. Why? Because of the Great Maggot Fiasco of 2003. Also, I live in a tropical climate, and if I don't put something in the fridge, and I usually don't put powdery-type things in the fridge because they absorb smells, little creatures tend to move in.
No matter how tightly you seal up a once-opened bag of bread crumbs, the bugs find a way. And unless they are specifically prepared for my dining pleasure, I'm not eating bugs. I seal up flour and sugar like I'm preparing for the apocalypse.
Yet after all this, the oldest thing I've ever eaten was dehydrated vegetable soup mix that was over two years old, and I'm still here.
So yeah, I eat almost everything. I sometimes wonder if, because I have a penchant for preserved, pickled, fermented, generally "rotten" seeming food, my taste buds are battle scarred? Has my stomach, as a defense mechanism, just "evolved" to suit my eating choices? Or are we generally, as a culture (like my mother believes), just way too finicky about the perceived safety of our food?
Honestly I don't know. To each their own. If I'm entertaining, I'm not going to feed you month old egg omelets, or make you a holey PB&J where I've cut out the mold. It's my own thing. I'm okay with it, but I realize, like much of my eating, it makes some people squeamish.
But it works for me, and frankly it stretches my tight food budget a little farther.
So if you're pondering what to do with that borderline avocado or those last few spoonfuls of old pasta sauce in your fridge, I leave you with some words from the patron saint of questionable consumption, Andrew Zimmern:
"If it looks good, eat it."
Do you eat expired food? How far past the sell by date will you eat something? What's the oldest thing you've ever eaten?