Expiration States

Milk Carton - Expiration Closeup

Most relationships share a foundation of common interests and beliefs. Ours is no exception. There is however, an area within our marriage in which Caitlin and I have retreated to our separate ideological corners: food safety. The meaning of the phrase “food safety” may not be immediately clear to an outsider, but it is an issue which comes up so frequently within our household, that we’ve come to agree on that as the proper name for that as the area of debate. Specifically, food safety refers to the time period or conditions under which food may or may not be safe for human consumption.

Within Food Safety nation, Caitlin is a red state. She is a compassionate conservative, with a traditional formulation of food safety values. Caitlin holds true that America’s milk producers are able to predict with absolute and unfailing accuracy the day and hour when milk goes from a delicious and enjoyable dairy product to toxic and potentially lethal beverage. This date (conveniently printed on the carton) represents, like Cinderella’s coach turning back into a pumpkin at midnight, the precise moment when milk becomes a dangerous occupant of our refrigerator. It is at this point that milk goes from being a welcome house guest to the food equivalent of six teenage boys in oversized sweatshirts hanging around in a dark convenience store parking lot. Caitlin rigorously applies this red state mentality to any product that has the benefit of being labeled with a Sell-By date. The dangers that lurk within our fridge and pantry are not always as obvious as expired dairy; certainly there are more ambiguous cases that wait for an opportunity to strike and to wreak havoc, edible sleeper cells waiting for a nation’s vigilance to wane. Fruits and vegetables are such a case. Most vegetables, or at least those we regularly purchase, arrive at our home unlabeled – bearing neither a clearly marked expiration date or the less desirable Sell-By date. If technology offered the promise of printing guidelines, dates, or even instructions directly on vegetables, I have no doubt that Caitlin would be one of the early adopters. Fruit and veg, lacking an authoritative signpost for the point of no return, must be inspected early and often for signs of treachery. In red state territory, such signs may or may not include:

  • low-level humidity within the vegetable’s plastic bag
  • ambiguous bag clinging
  • scary wiltiness
  • and the all-important mildly suspicious odor.

In contrast, I am a blue state. I will not claim that I did not have these tendencies before marriage. Perhaps it is worth noting that one of my closest friends is a gentleman who would eventually earn the nickname of “The Goat” based on a college episode in which, he gladly consumed pizza that had lain around for 36+ hours sans refrigeration…while in Mexico. Sadly, I am certain that my blue state tendencies in food safety have been exacerbated by living with a red stater. Caitlin and my situation is the Food Safety nation equivalent of bitterly partisan politics. Where Caitlin sees danger in dairy, I seek to demonstrate that blatant disregard of the Sell-By date and its chronological constraints is the true path of free minds. I believe that Sell-By is a soft guideline for products to exit store premises, rather than a deadline for actual consumption. If I notice leftovers that are perhaps past their prime, I’m mysteriously compelled to consume them – and to do so before Caitlin’s watchful eye discovers them lurking in the unexamined corners of the fridge. I don’t know where this propensity comes from, nor do I always like the results. I recall an instance in which I found some orphaned broccoli in the crisper. (Sidenote: I’ve yet to find any food item that actually responds favorably to the mythic powers of the so-called crisper.) In accordance with my habit at the time, I ran the idea of eating the broccoli past my lovely red state bride. She advised against its consumption, but because, frankly, my mind had been made up the instant I’d discovered the vegetable and I’d known what her recommendation would be, I boiled and ate the broccoli. By doing so, I’d proved my point. That is, until an hour later when a horrific stomach ache had me moaning on the couch.

So I learned a few things that day. One: even the most cavalier renegades of Food Safety nation should tread cautiously on the cruciferous branch of the vegetable kingdom. Two: sometimes your spouse is right, but there’s little to be gained from admitting as much. Three: Even when one’s blue state principles are refuted in a closely contested election, one does not immediately start voting Republican. Just acknowledge it’s time to find another candidate and throw one’s support behind him.

Once the nausea passes.


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