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Published: 4/15/2004

Commentary: Expiration dates? Who needs 'em?

BY RYAN SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

I blew it. There's no nice way to put it.

You see, my kitchen is a litany of woe, a culinary collection of death-row inmates that have received stays of execution. Aging food has made a mockery of my refrigerator, and I haven't done anything about it.

I should have. I have no excuse, especially since National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Week just passed.

Only, I found out too late. The corporate-sponsored holiday wrapped up last Saturday.

National holidays exist for the public good, to make us remember what's important in our lives and our society. We all know that. Too bad I've been unobservant. I blew it.

The evidence cries out from my fridge. Allow me to enter into the record the following food items and their expiration dates:

• A bottle of Busch Lite beer. April 28, 1999.

• A bag of croutons, Oct. 30, 1999.

• A bottle of Cheez Whiz Cheezin' And Squeezin' pasteurized process cheese sauce, May 8, 2001.

• A jar of Tostitos salsa, June 27, 2001.

And those are just the ones for which I could find expiration dates. There are several others - ranch dressing, hot sauce, a wedge of smoky onion cheese - that I know have been in there for more than two years even though I can't prove it.

Other highlights include the survivors of a five-pound box of Popsicles that I bought in June, 1998 - my very first purchase when I first moved to town - as well as a hard-boiled egg that I left on a shelf only a week ago and which now has shrunk into a tight little ball. It's so cool, I can't bring myself to throw it away.

This isn't to say I have nothing fresh. I don't want you to get that impression. There's milk that doesn't expire for a week, some sliced bologna that I've been using for lunch, and a bottle of orange juice that I just picked up the other day.

It's not that I have a thing for collecting old food either. It just seems such a waste to throw away food that, upon a sight and sniff inspection, doesn't appear to have gone bad. I know there's a risk to eating it, but until it starts looking furry how can you be sure?

I did devise my own solution to the problem, though it was less elegant and effective than setting aside a week every year to clean out my refrigerator: I try to pay my friends to eat my old food.

One actually took me up on it last summer. She agreed for $5 to eat 15 pickle chunks from a jar of Tony Packo's Pickles and Peppers that had been lounging near the back of my fridge for well over a year. All she said, matter-of-factly, was that she liked pickles.

I worried for her a little, even as I touted the preservative powers of pickle juice. In an effort to confirm my hypothesis, I sought out Kathie Smith, The Blade's food editor. She wouldn't speculate on my specific case, but offered general, conservative advice.

"When in doubt, throw it out," she said. "Nothing in the refrigerator is eternal. Caution is the best policy."

My mom, however, said to eat it and see what happens. I guess she's from the old school that believes food poisoning is nature's way of publicizing an expiration date.

While the rest of us wrinkled our faces and made gagging noises, my friend got to work making pickle sandwiches.

"Actually," she said, "I had no fear because I knew without a doubt those pickles were still good, albeit a little soggy and hot."

I guess she was right. She got my $5 and nary a stomach ache.

I'll have the last laugh, though. The next National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Week isn't for another year, and I've got some year-old pudding and another $5.

Contact Ryan Smith at ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6074.



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