Pull Dates—What our refrigerators can tell us about ourselves.

Facing up to your weaknesses is never easy. Letting go of them? Even tougher.

I’m reminded of the fellow I knew nearly four decades ago who gingerly wheeled a sofa footstool up to my refrigerator, opened the door, and settled into prowl.

“Wow,” he exclaimed, as he grabbed jar after jar to have a closer look. “This is a veritable pâté graveyard!”

“There isn’t any pâté,” I protested.

“Maybe not, but look at all this,” he hooted. “Is it OK if I taste some of what’s in here? Could you hand me a spoon?”

“Sure,” I shrugged, wary of all the attention my fridge contents commanded.

To me, a refrigerator was a practical resource, a place to find what I needed to create a memorable meal. Or so I thought.

I’d forgotten about the guy who braved his way through my cold foodstuffs until one day recently when I couldn’t find what I was after in my fridge. I started to yank out bottles and jars to see what lurked behind that closed door. Then I made a list of what had been hanging out the longest.

Item—Expiration Date                                  

Japanese Calpico carbonated soft drink—February 2017
Lemon ginger cayenne kombucha—March 2017
Hero cassis soft drink—August 2017
Evolve plant-based chocolate protein shake—January 2018
Hawaiian Sun guava nectar —July 2018
Bundaberg Australian ginger beer—August 2018
Trader Joe’s Manzanilla olives—January 2020
Rao pizza sauce —May 2021
Toady’s horseradish—August 2021

Add to all that an unopened, yet refrigerated, bottle of raspberry, calorie-free, sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free, cholesterol-free vinaigrette, expiration August 2020. What possessed me to buy it in the first place? It should’ve been free!

Six years in storage surely won’t age those exotic soft drinks like fine wines. Some of them, especially that vintage Japanese Calpico and Hawaiian Sun guava nectar, are loaded with sweet travel recollections. Just seeing the likes of them lined up in the fridge door revived those adventures with a pleasant sigh.

“Get real,” I told myself. “A refrigerator is no place to stash memories.”

Au contraire. My homeowners insurance policy declarations include coverage for “refrigerated spoilage,” and, unlike the rest of the policy provisions, there is absolutely no limit and no premium. Think of it—fridge delectables, all insured—if the fridge goes kaput.

Best not to get too cocky and start loading up that fridge with a bunch of pricey gourmet oddities thick with reverie no matter what their expiration. Along comes the U.S. Department of Agriculture with advice from its Food Safety and Inspection Service that I discovered on the EatingWell website.

Those Manzanilla olives from 2020? I pitched ’em. I can’t quite believe the USDA says an open jar of olives only keeps two weeks! Even pickles have just one to three months once open and refrigerated. Mayo and salad dressings only have two months. And my Toady’s horseradish had a life of three to four months, hardly long enough to become well-acquainted.

Freezers are another chilly challenge. The USDA says everything crammed in a freezer like mine has only three to four months before it loses its spunk. If it hangs out in there for more than six months, better say bye-bye, even that fish a friend caught a year ago.

Moving right along to the pantry, where at least rice and pasta can last years. There’s some joy and relief in that.

Did you know flour has a shelf life? I guess I don’t bake often enough these days because my flour bag says it expired in August 2021. Eight months is all the freshness the USDA promises for flour. You can give it a smell test, though, if you have a big schnozzola like Jimmy Durante. He probably had the best nose to detect bad flour and a lot more.

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 90s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.

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