Monday, September 13, 2010

Best If Used By...

I baked a cake for my birthday last month. It wasn’t actually very good because I beat the egg whites too much even though I live at a really high altitude, but I like seeing them puff up. It’s like a special kind of magic show reserved for those of us who didn’t learn to bake from scratch until college.

Anyway, the cake was dry to the point that it needed a ten-minute soak in melty ice cream to stop tasting like sheetrock. But I baked it, and it was my birthday cake, and I had plenty of Cookies & Cream, so I was going to eat it anyway, even if it took two weeks because no one else wanted any.

The thing is, it’s hard to tell when a cake is too old to eat except by how dry it’s getting. This one didn’t look any different with the passage of time, and it sure didn’t taste different, so by about Day 13 I was halfway afraid of contracting catastrophic, stubbornness-induced cake poisoning with every bite I took.

I play this game a lot—walking the fine line between waste and personal injury. If old food doesn’t look bad or smell bad, I feel guilty for throwing it out, so I have two options:
  1. Leave it in the fridge until it does look bad, then throw it out with a clear conscience.
  2. Eat it, claiming to believe it can’t hurt me, and spend the next 36 hours suffering the shadowy malaise of Egg Doubt.
Egg Doubt is the creeping sensation you feel after eating the last Easter egg a week from Tuesday, even though they are only supposed to keep for seven days. Once you make that fateful decision, the rest of the day will be full of phantom stomach pains and episodes of fleeting lightheadedness: Did you imagine it, or are you about to collapse into a pool of flaming botulism doom as your own intestines destroy you from within?

Egg Doubt is the twin of Dairy Doubt; they fall into the larger family of Expirationoia along with their cousins, Potato Salad Suspicion and Mistrust of Room-Temperature Cold Cuts.

It’s even harder to judge the safe zone with other food groups, though, because they don’t come with echoes of age-old parental warning. No one ever says, “Don’t eat that broccoli if it’s been left out!” or “The Jell-O isn’t very fresh.” So this stuff sits in the fridge accumulating Starving-Children-In-China guilt until someone finally takes the plunge, one way or the other.

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