I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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