Monday, November 2, 2009

You Can't Stop Time But Sometimes You Can Eat It

Why is it that my elderly relatives all seem to think that their refrigerators can preserve everything in perpetuity?

Last week, in between filling me in on the talents of key Phillies players, my father told me he'd found cranberry sauce packets in his fridge from about 10 years ago, opened them up, and was tempted to eat them because they looked fine. I think he was only saying that to torture me, because he knows it works every time. He's 95, and a bad bout of food poisoning might finish him off.

When we came home from my mom's funeral in 2002, he got a bottle of wine from the fridge and opened it. It was a bottle I'd been given as a gift when I was in high school by our Italian parish priest, because I played guitar and sang for Mass. (That would make it 1977.) A fine vintage, you ask? It was Reunite Lambrusco with a screw cap. Dad never drinks and I never drink, but we toyed with the idea. He did, anyway. Then we looked at pictures of his late cat, Harold, and cried our eyes out.

My dad thinks intuitively like a scientist or an engineer. He easily applies basic scientific principles to everyday life. I do, too, to some extent. (Still, we both electrocute ourselves from time to time.) Anyway, he figured out how to keep his fridge unnaturally cold. He really can keep cold cuts, milk, and other stuff fresh in his fridge past their expiration date. My brother, however, checks every label before he'll eat anything and throws out lots of stuff on his weekly visits. I think my dad puts it all back after he leaves.

My dad knows that, every time you open the freezer door, you let warm air in, which is the enemy of your Sealtest strawberry and your Hungry Man Dinners. I think he's worked out some system where he whips the food off the shelf before the freezer knows what hit it. You don't dare linger in front of the open door in his house.

I have another relative whose fridge is like a history time capsule. I've seen spilled raspberry pies in there, from years gone by. I've seen blue-black tomatoes that dissolved when touched. I've seen things I don't ever want to talk about.

Today, she happily told me she'd found her homemade cranberry relish in the freezer from Thanksgiving 2005, and had defrosted and eaten it. "It was delicious! I think we should sell it!" she said, referring to the recipe, not the artifact.

Over and over again, I explain to her: freezers don't stop time. Food doesn't last for all eternity just because it's rock-hard. The only reason she had 2005 relish in her freezer is because I haven't cleaned it out since January 2008. And while I tossed three trash bags' worth of toxic food from at least as far back as 1994 — including some 3-year-old raw oysters that were rotting in the fridge — I collapsed before I made it all the way through the freezer. (To keep from throwing up, I sang folk songs I learned in high school. Trying to remember all the lyrics kept my mind off what I was doing. You should remember this in case you find yourself cleaning an old lady's fridge.)

Food still deteriorates in a freezer, just as it does in a fridge, but usually at a slower rate. Bacteria can still grow, just more slowly, and of course, you get safe-to-eat but unpleasant deterioration from freezer burn and ice crystals as food dries out or condensation forms and refreezes.

My relative thinks nothing of grilling meat that is several years old. I'm sure my dad would think nothing of eating it. My theory is that old people believe that freezers stop time because their tastebuds are shot. To her, the meat is yummy, to us, it is as inedible as the cardboard it smells like. She thinks she will lay in a 5-year supply the next time steaks are on sale; we're thinking longingly about pizza.

At least none of the old people in my family has the delusions that Ted Williams's family had. We put our relatives safely in the ground when they reach their expiration date.

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