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[whitespace] Clean Sweep

Purging the pantry and freeing the fridge

by Marina Wolf

I WATCHED the liquor swirl down the drain, steady streams from a double-fisted pour of old tequila and vodka. They mingled in the middle, chasing the traces of piss-vinegar "cooking wine." We were moving, which gave me license to kill: any item in the liquor cabinet (OK, the stuffy cupboard above the refrigerator) that wasn't a valuable vintage or at least half full had to be drained and recycled. The sink smelled like a cheap party for days. But the smell made me feel strangely sad.

Moves are tough, and cleaning the kitchen is downright traumatic for people like me who live there. I shed a lot of dreams during those final days of cleaning and packing. A pound of 8-year-old mint leaves hits the trash, a mute and musty testimony to the fact that I was never going to practice herbal medicine in any systematic way. Rancid tahini hinted that I wasn't really serious about investigating Middle Eastern cookery (can I help it if my girlfriend doesn't like hummus?). Bags of old bones and cheese rinds emerged from the freezer, revealing both an abundance of freezer burn and a complete lack of forethought about making simple homemade soup stocks.

GARBAGE as psychosocial index is not a new idea. Hell, half of archaeology is just someone's old garbage. As a culture, we manage to avoid the implications of our detritus by sending it down the disposal or putting it out in neat little carts. But my moment of truth came on moving day, when I had the support of triple-ply industrial-strength garbage bags to hold whatever I threw out.

Full-bore fridge-purging is liberating, but unsettling at the same time. It's the flip side of those refrigerator readings that pass for pop psychology, I thought, staring at the bags of slimy lettuce and overripe Brie and ancient Tupperware filled with solidified soup: this stuff is my shadow self, the true me asserting itself in spite of my best intentions. Rotten lettuce: I wanted to eat more salads, but haven't. Overripe Brie: I wanted more glamorous dinner occasions, but didn't have the time. Moldy leftovers: I wanted to be more thrifty, but craved more exciting tastes, like pizza and pad thai, the containers for which sit smugly empty in the recycle bin.

And never mind the moldy stuff, the stuff I ruined through neglect. I had to take a good look at the stuff that was still usable and admit that I was never going to use it. I didn't count the half-empty jars of mustard, salad dressings, and Chinese hot-pepper pastes that got tossed, but the garbage bag that held them was a heavy-enough indictment. "It's the kitchen corollary of the one-year rule on clothes," I told myself while meditating on a jar of sun-dried tomato tapenade that had been with us two houses ago. "If I haven't needed it in all this time, then what's the problem?" The problem is that I didn't want to let go of the culinary desires that had inspired me to buy the tapenade in the first place, but now lay congealed like a layer of olive oil. I gently placed the jar in the now-bulging garbage bag.

Heaving the bag out to the curb, I realized the truth: I'm a kitchen explorer who bites off way more than I can chew, and there's no shame in clearing out time-worn plans and dreams to make way for practical considerations. Sure, I could have kept that leftover liquor. I just wanted to be reminded of my carefree college days. But I don't drink like that anymore, and neither does anyone else I know.

Anyway, I need to make room in the new liquor cabinet for the Pernod that's going to go in my next seafood stew. I can't remember, does that recipe call for sun-dried tomatoes?

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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