Expiration dates

: Few notice them until it’s too late. I don’t realize the milk is past its prime until I shovel the first spoonful of cereal into my mouth and the fetid sourness coats my tongue in a chunky meringue. merengue

I’m helpless in the face of spoiled food because I had so little experience with it growing up. With six brothers and sisters, the idea of any food lasting long enough to make it to an expiration date was ludicrous. We were about as picky as a pack of wolves. We were lucky if the milk lasted a day; sometimes I resorted to powdered milk on my cereal because I’d woken up later than my siblings and they’d already emptied the carton.

That’s not to say we never ate expired food, however. My mom simply never acknowledged that expiration dates existed. Like Walt Disney, she believed in cryogenics; we bought in bulk and stored everything in our basement freezers. She took pains to educate us on the difference between the “sell by” date and the expiration date. If the food was frozen up to the day of the expiration date, she believed, it could be kept in perpetuity in the freezer.

Pulled out from the back of the freezer would be bread that was older than some of us by the time we found it. We lamented that milk gallons never included the year in their expiration dates so we could pin a decade on them as we pulled them out and scraped off the ice. As my brothers and sisters moved out, items removed after several months of “deep freeze” might now remain hidden for days in the back of the fridge. We were on the clock because food that was flash-frozen a day before the expiration date turned quickly when released back into the refrigerator. If I pulled out cheese and waited longer than it took to thaw, it was already bad.

Even today, my mom’s freezer is a time machine. The ice cream I bought three years ago still lives in there, the vanilla and chocolate completely scooped out but the strawberry remaining like some forgotten relic sheathed in ice. She lives alone but still freezes food like a puddle in January.

My wife didn’t grow up with the expiration date survival skills necessary to make it in this world. She is trusting, as if Fate would not allow that cottage cheese to go bad. She lived in a home where the dairy products were curated for her, the expired items weeded out and replaced as if by fairies.

As a result, she’ll sometimes throw away the original package that contains the expiration date, leaving me to roll the dice on that pepper jack cheese. (Is that mold, or is that part of a green pepper?) I’ll spread shredded cheese on a pizza and suddenly hit a green patch. I’ll reach for a banana and discover a new shade of black because she believes it’s “still good inside.” (And it is, if mainlining sugar cane is your thing; it’s like diabetes inside a skin.) We’ve had bread that was little more than a mold delivery system by the time we discovered it in the back of the pantry. We’ve cultivated enough penicillin in our breadbox to save an entire regimen during World War II.

Still, it’s easy to go worry too much about expiration dates. Some people actually notice the expiration dates on things like cookies. If you have cookies that last so long that you actually have to look to see if they’ve gone bad, you’re some kind of whacko and I think I have to hate you.

Regardless, expiration dates become just one more thing to worry about in a world full of them. I think I’ll stock up on Twinkies and check at least one thing off the list.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net, contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.