I went to make myself some grits on Friday night for dinner. As the water was boiling, I pulled the container out of the pantry and noticed that the plastic ziploc bag was neither air-tight nor water-tight as it was supposed to be. This turned out to be a problem where, for at least ten seconds, I considered whether the grits were still salvageable because, after all, people in India wouldn’t waste food. I determined that reclaiming the bottom third of a $2.89 box of grits was not worth whatever dire ailments might ensue.
Then, it turned out there was a similar issue with what we thought was a tightly-sealed container of steel-cut oats. Crumbs. Mildew. As we unearthed a few more containers, my wife said, “Do you remember that problem we had with water damage a few years back?”
Uh-oh. That was quite a few years back, during the great recession if I recall, when I was out of work for a short spell, and we were moving money around to pay for a leak that required rebuilding and replastering the wall at the back of the hall closet which is on the other side of…. Oh, the pantry.
Well, these things happen, a small problem that you dig under, and suddenly it’s a large problem. Half of a Saturday gets devoted to cleaning out and assessment, followed by trips to the hardware store, powering up the Black and Decker tools, consultations with experts i.e. your DIY friends and the internet, and half of Sunday, and all of it far more involved than you planned for.
I am, as ever, grateful to be married to someone whose father was a handy person because it is genetic and when it comes to these things, my parents were academics. Emptying the pantry turned out to be an unexpected trip down memory lane, though, so in that way it had some hidden benefits.
Why Do We Have…?
For some reason we have thirteen bottles of vinegar, of which eight were balsamic. Now, I do enjoy balsamic vinegar. In fact, my gourmet cook friend Fran demonstrated how good aged balsamic goes with lentil soup last week. And yet, eight bottles? I bet Fran would say that we’re insufficiently using it in our meals. Or, as they say on all the cooking shows I watch while munching leftovers from the takeout containers, we may need to enhance our flavor profile more.
Organic quinoa and look, more organic quinoa, and oh look…. three opened bags. In our house, we call that a Violation. Hey, here’s some polenta… don’t worry, polenta keeps forever except…hmmm, maybe not that polenta. It had a scary-looking wrinkle on the side.
Bags of almonds—vanilla – still good, very good. Coffee cashews—these went over big in Ireland, and they’re still good. Unfortunately, there was also a giant bag full of small bags of pistachios, mixed nuts, and car snacks. I believe we put that together to share with the kids either for the trip to Oregon (2012) or ohmygod Las Vegas (2009)? I seem to recall pulling that out several times over the last few years and thinking, Naaah, not going to risk it, but then just putting it back. Why are we so lazy? (that’s the rhetorical royal we, there, where we means me.)
Which Trip to New Orleans?
Hurricane Cocktail mix –“Do you want to know when I bought this?” said my wife. I had no clue. I don’t drink alcohol, which may be to the chagrin of my friends, I don’t know. But if it involves alcohol and doesn’t involve crusting a ham or sauteeing some mushrooms, I really don’t know anything about it. “That first trip to New Orleans.”
I’m not even sure when that was. I thought there was a trip that involved her work but if it was work full-time in an office then that was pre-children, and the one is in graduate school, so I don’t think so. It must have been work involving some sort of writer’s conference. I know I went on one of those trips, but it was on the second trip, so that I could be guided to all the places They went when I wasn’t there where They had fun that wasn’t had when I was there, because it wasn’t as novel any more. I’m not bitter – the same thing always happens when I take the spouse to the places I went for work junkets. The beignets were still good.
At any rate, I can’t quite remember when the New Orleans trip was. It prompted the idea for the third book of the trilogy that she’s never finished writing, because she was full of ideas when we were walking on Bourbon Street and was going to write about this ancient-looking building, an orphanage or something. Then, about a year or so later Katrina happened, and it’s hard to set anything in New Orleans after Katrina without mentioning Katrina. That was still in the Bush II years, so that means the trip to New Orleans…well, I think that Hurricane Cocktail mix is about fifteen years old, maybe twenty. In theory, it doesn’t ever get too old, but much of the sojourn in the pantry was like this. Who wants to test exactly whether the food is too old?
Here was some gluten-free corn meal, three years past date. In fact, there was quite a bit of half-started gluten-free stuff. What happened was she thought for three or four years that she had a gluten allergy – mind you, many people do have them, I’m not saying it’s not a Thing. It just turned out she doesn’t have a gluten allergy but an allergy to yeast and yeast extract. And kerrageenan and coconut and artichoke. There’s an ever-growing set in our grocery list application so that if I go to the store and buy something with the Thing in it, I have to eat it all myself. That’s the rule. Which is fair.
Sprinkles. We had a lot of sprinkles and frosting and special sugars and animal shaped sprinkles. For some reason, I really liked using the hippopotamus ones but not the lion ones. We did bake cookies with the children a dozen years ago, just never as often as I thought we would. The problem with baking cookies is that I would always eat so many more than the children would eat. And the kids would want to do the decorating until it came time to do the decorating, and once we got the accoutrements out, they would wander off or want to just eat the cookies without decorating. I do so admire bake sale mothers who were always selling elaborately decorated cookies. When push comes to shove, I tended to opt for rice krispy treats which take about ten minutes to make start to finish since you’re just melting butter and marshmallows. Or better yet, there are many fine brownie bites for purchase at establishments like Trader Joe’s and Safeway. That takes no time at all, too.
“What the Hell is that?” aka Buried Treasure
I did keep the sugars flavored with the buttered rum and espresso. Just because I don’t know what Hurricane cocktails taste like, I can still get behind buttered-rum-flavored sugar. I wonder if that would work on cobbler; I have become a great lover of cobblers.
We unearthed a coffee-bean flavored sugar grinder. It may sound odd, but it’s really good on cookies. To heck with hippopotamus sprinkles! How did we let that grinder get stuck behind the unopened jars of fancy mustards? That belongs with the spices. Violation! Some Himalayan sea salt. Why would they have sea salt in the Himalayas do you suppose? From Gondwanaland?
Some Central Coast cioppino seasoning — that must have been from a trip to Mendocino which was the last time we went camping, when the kids still thought it was fun rather than When will this be over so we can get back to our video games and skateboarding? I bet that was the time my wife kept saying “butt” to the kids and they would literally fall over in laughter.
There’s this movie called Waiting for the Moon, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. In one scene they are sitting at a table, and Stein is taking apart a motor for some reason, and as something clinks on the table, she says, “What the hell do you suppose that is?” That’s the voice I keep hearing.
Unmarked plastic bag. Unlabelled bottle of goop that smells good. Folded up cellophane powder. Jar of something with someone’s fancy handwriting on it that’s smeared a little so it’s not quite readable. “What the hell do you suppose that is?”
There was a whole canister of tea hiding behind the hot chocolate. Another Violation. Tea doesn’t go there. It goes in a cabinet on the other side of the kitchen above the fancy salts and bbq rubs. Some of the tea was Ceylonese and seemed like it was from the first trip to England plus some Christmas tea that was from our Irish trip this year. Tea is good forever. I made myself some tea right then and there, because I always forget how much I like tea. One good thing about the weather changing is that I get more interested in tea.
We had an unmarked bag of what looked like wood shavings from the front lawn, but was also tea. My initial impression was that it might be dubious tea, but the stuff smelled wonderful. More tea from the first trip to England I think, and it needs to be brewed in a pot because it’s not in tea bags. I’ll bet we couldn’t solve for that, couldn’t find the special tea pot we bought at the Japanese garden in San Francisco before we even moved here. It might have been put in the garage with other breakables when the kids were young. We can get that stuff out now. The tea smelled of cinnamon and cardamom, so from India perhaps. Probably the only thing we could afford in a trip to Harrod’s.
Roasted red pepper tea, though? Really? Why would that even exist? And why did we buy it?
In the movie, Toklas – played by Linda Hunt – responds, “A suppression coil.” Then there’s a pause, and she continues, “How the hell should I know?”
Oh, man, a half used jar of spaghetti sauce. Where did THAT come from? Not in the refrigerator getting moldy, but in the pantry? Holy cow? The best we could tell, it may have come from one of the children, now college students briefly haunting the house over the summer, not quite clear yet about the meaning of REFRIGERATE AFTER OPENING. The jar miraculously didn’t have any growths in it yet. Wow, those preservatives in Prego must be quite something!
Another disaster narrowly averted.