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Canned Don'ts

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Ever tried making a casserole out of dill pickles, mayonnaise and beets?

By Traci Hukill

Since Thanksgiving, we've endured it. We've done more than endure it: We've composed our features into a collective portrait of forbearance and concern even as we hurried past its insistent jangle. In front of every post office, shopping mall and grocery store, the Salvation Army bell, the very mouthpiece of Christmas guilt, has flushed out whatever fugitive sense of well-being we may have cultivated in between bouts of maxing out our credit cards and fighting with relatives. Still it continues, the pricking of conscience rendered into song by someone in an overcoat standing next to a red pot, the hated bell blithering on.

Ting-a ting-a ting-a ting. Ting-a ting-a ting-a ting.

Christmas guilt is everywhere. It stalks shoppers who furtively purchase entire outfits for themselves instead of loading up on quality gifts when they stumble onto a really good sale. It afflicts well-meaning DINKs who find it necessary to escape their own families' dysfunction by immersing themselves in the misery of a soup-kitchen serving line on Christmas Day. It pries open the clenched fists of otherwise frugal souls and causes them spasmodically to drop chunks of change or even dollar bills into the Salvation Army collection pot. Christmas guilt is a scourge, in other words, and we fight back in the same passive-aggressive spirit in which it's leveled at our masses:

We give crappy food to the food drives.

Of course it's not entirely clear who's responsible for Christmas guilt, but that's just an annoying detail. The fact is, purging the cupboard of the food we couldn't bring ourselves to use all year and giving it away is the perfect retaliation against whoever or whatever makes us feel so bad when charity gives way to self-interest.

For one thing, donating to a food drive is anonymous. Casually drop a can or two of spinach in an unattended collection box, and no one need ever know how stingy or spontaneously tasteless you can be. Better yet, send those garbanzos to school with your kids, and let them deal with the shame of passed expiration dates.

It's as if we all convince ourselves for a month that poor people have different taste buds than we do. Hunger is the best seasoning, they say, but can anything help the cause of a can of corned beef hash? Is personal financial crisis usually accompanied by a sudden lust for prune juice?

The Second Harvest food barrels parked in the front of the grocery stores at the advent of the holiday season fill slowly, and then with offerings of questionable taste and sense. What exactly is a homeless person going to do with a jar of horseradish sauce? Enjoy it on top of a sturdy helping of beets? What nutritional benefits might a family down on its luck glean from sugar-free salsa or an extra-large jar of mayonnaise? Maybe they could whip up something elegant using some of that delicious canned pumpkin that rolls into the food bank every year since pumpkin pie, which requires things like eggs, spices and a pie shell, is out of the question for people who can't afford to buy the necessities of life and might not have an oven.

Julie Scopazzi, public relations manager for Second Harvest Food Bank, remains unflappably cheerful in the face of the culinary odds and ends that fill the collection barrels every year. "We've got nutrition specialists who know the expiration date and then the real expiration date," she says, noting that Second Harvest is glad to get donations of any flavor and variety.

Since Second Harvest relies heavily on holiday donations--which comprise about half the inventory for the year--Scopazzi offers a list of most-needed foods. It includes items like rice, beans, peanut butter, tuna, low-sodium canned veggies and soups and canned chili. Noticeably absent from the list are Russian dressing, Spam and the dill pickle family of foods. But Scopazzi is gracious. She says those items wind up going to the soup kitchens. Everything gets used.

But let us think a little on the fate of those delicacies. Can we for a moment believe that a single can of Spam is going to be opened and served to the first few lucky folks in line? Doubtful. A more likely scenario is that it will be incorporated into a casserole--a casserole that just might involve the Russian dressing and pickles, too.

So have a heart. Next time Christmas guilt heads your way, don't fight back. Surrender to it. And give away food you wouldn't mind eating yourself.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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