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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Mister, Clean: If you have at least some of these items, you may be prepared to take on the fridge.

Tales From the Crypt

Cleaning out the refrigerator is a great way to start the new year--if you survive

By Christina Waters

A decade ago, I got into the ancient Chinese tradition of a symbolic New Year's Eve housecleaning, sweeping away the dust, dirt and metaphorical debris of the past so that the new year could start clean, so to speak. Modifying the custom, I reduced it to an annual peek into the psychic well that is the refrigerator. With fear and trembling--the sort of emotional attitude we have towards the unknown--I take a candid glimpse of its accumulated contents.

As you open the door and peer in, you see the year pass before you. It is a disturbing sight. It is an examination of conscience. (It may require a shot of gin before commencement.) Why did I think I needed three jars of crushed garlic? What was the obsession with sun-dried cranberries really about? That we hold on to the barely used, the overused and the unusable says more about our phobias, obsessions and psychic furniture than we would ever want to know.

Opening these white porcelain doors of denial, I begin a process that will bring ultimate freedom. Getting there, however, will involve shame, regret and sobering confrontation with lapsed expiration dates.

Things are fairly simple in the immediate top front of the refrigerator--the main shelf. Here we have that smidgen of butter that must, at all costs, be retained. It would barely cover half a piece of toast, but the ghost of my grandmother in her Depression-era apron mocks all logic. Here, too, we have the lineup of five to eight jars of jam in various stages of coagulation. We only actually like two of these flavors, the plum and the peach, but we feel obligated to keep a vast stable of flavors. Only now, after a year of neglect, can I bring myself to throw them out.

The existential dilemma heats up as we approach the Twilight Zone of condiments, salsas and relishes. How do you know the exact right time to remove a substance from the refrigerator? Is it enough that you never liked it and will never eat it? Or does it have to also be spoiled and/or older than Jesse Helms?

Invoking the help of the Hindu god Ganesha, that jovial remover of obstacles, I examine container after container of salsa. Tomato salsa, tomatillo salsa, pepper salsa, even Tibetan nettle salsa (don't ask). I toss a quarter-full bottle of sauvignon blanc and hold a jar of capers up to the light like a forensic analyst at an autopsy. Should there really be yellow crystals growing in the matrix of that cherry chutney? Hmm, I don't recall purchasing any Hostess Ding Dongs. My hand reaches out for that furry white object, and then recoils. I let out a little scream. It is a Hostess Ding Dong. It was a former Meyer lemon that, left to time and bacterial tendencies, has acquired a new identity as a thing covered with white flocking. The mutant Meyer is a clear exemplar of the adage that if you keep something long enough, it loses its identity. When it is no longer recognizable, then you're allowed to throw it out. Behind this grotesque corpse lies the bag of perpetual sun-dried cherries, now hard enough to pave an airport runway. Grey Poupon, French's, Safeway brand--there are mustards here enough to service all the hot-dog stands in Central Park.

A special circle of hell appears: Things Covered With Plastic Wrap. Million-day-old anchovies nestled in a jolly Italian faience bowl and covered with plastic. Smoked salmon from last summer hides triumphantly in a plate (so that's where that plate was), also covered with plastic. So many items pushed to the back of the refrigerator and kept. Way longer than was prudent. They have successfully played for time, all because of our almost cellular belief that anything covered with plastic will survive natural disaster, nuclear attack, even the Rapture. And isn't it weird how once you put a snug little saran covering over it, everything sort of looks alike? And equally repulsive?

In a large plastic container malinger three small Picholine olives. When did they arrive? Last week? Last month? Olives are cured in brine, right? So they didn't go bad, did they? A degree in toxic pharmacology would help with these hard calls.

Onward, through the pitiful remains of wasabi lime mustard, past the expired yogurt behind the tamarind chutney that has turned, magically, from liquid to solid in the span of a few short months. Years? I'm convinced that when left unsupervised, yogurt and non-fat milk containers multiply, clearly by some poorly understood form of dairy mitosis. More yogurt containers enter my peripheral field, some mere months past their expiration dates.

So far, so good. Some moldy jam, a few decaying dairy products, sauces-turned-solids and some clotted goo that used to be pasta. One bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. One bottle of Bass Ale. One container of Odwalla tangerine juice barely expired. Oh, and a few tubes of anchovy paste that have acquired that repulsive, overly squeezed look of a teenager's tube of toothpaste.

I brace myself--it's going to get rough. I approach the two points of no return--the vegetable bin and the refrigerator door. Remember how Marlon Brando looked in Apocalypse Now when he said, "The horror, the horror"? Hold that thought.

Kale morphing into a black lagoon might easily support the growth of experimental bacteria cells. "How did that organic cottage cheese get down here?" I wonder, making sure not to open the top while rushing the container to the garbage. Parsley, once green, now yellow, waits impatiently to be jettisoned, and a few shiitake mushrooms imitate those Styrofoam rocks from the set of Star Trek. On the door, the anal retention of my inner child gazes back at me. Two Worcestershire sauces, one with a label they stopped making a decade ago. Maple syrup--crystallized. Honey from New Zealand--never opened. Italian sparkling water that no longer sparkles. A sad jar of barely recognizable pepperoncini. And a solid acre of minerals and vitamins, including duplicate jars of echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo Vitamin C powder and glucosamine. Ketchup, organic and nonorganic, plus a jar of lite mayonnaise.

Finally, the Ultimate Repository--the freezer. Here are three of those blue ice bags for sports injuries, a misshapen loaf of last year's pumpkin bread, two bags of Steve's French Roast coffee beans, an open box of baking soda and trace quantities of mescaline from the early '70s carefully wrapped in aluminum foil, proof that I haven't yet gone gently into that good night.

After all of this exorcism, I invariably find myself feeling emotionally revived, psychically lightened. But like all closure, this New Year's ritual is strictly temporary. Next year will require yet another ritual rendezvous with my refrigerator.

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From the January 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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