If you ever feel compelled to examine your lifestyle in one rapid, unmerciful snapshot—a picture that unveils your purchasing habits, your eating patterns, your organizational skills, your housecleaning talents, your virtues or vices as a pet parent and neighbor—consider moving to a new home. By the time you get out (or should we say get away?), there is nothing about your personal life that will escape full display for those involved in moving logistics. One has to stiffen the backbone, and get ready, or face imminent collapse from embarrassment.
One small scene in the tragic comedy of my recent move was staged in the kitchen, a week or so before the trucks were coming. I sought my wise daughter’s advice on what to pack and what to toss, and the kitchen loomed large in the pack/purge opportunity equation. As the scene opens, she is diving into the spice cabinet.
In a kindly tone, she tries to divert my view from the initial evidence, as though gently turning the face of a small child from a doctor holding sterilized, steel implements used to stitch up that gashed lip. “Don’t look, Mom, just toss it,” she instructs, passing me a bottle of slightly greenish/beige-ish oregano leaves, nudging me slightly and pointing to the trash can.
Right. I reside among those tortured souls who are constitutionally incapable of accepting such instructions. When told not to look, I immediately do. What do you mean, don’t look? I ask, more curious than ever. Why wouldn’t I look?
She responds calmly, without judgment, to my query. “That one expired a while back,” she says, keeping her eyes on task at hand, her back to me. I laser in: How long is awhile? “2010,” comes the steady answer, the speaker still avoiding my eyes, possibly laughing silently where I can’t see it.
Let’s pause here and nibble on this in for a moment. That’s an entire, complete, recorded-in-the-books decade past expiration date. Ten years since the tiny, (originally) green, fragrant leaves were deemed too old to do their job in soups, lasagna, or whatever culinary effort they might have adorned, when at their peak and ready to do their flavorful best.
Rocking at this revelation, I froze for a strange moment as those 10 years streaked precariously past the window of the mind’s eye. For a decade, the oregano sat patiently in position on the spice rack, half-empty and technically retired, but still available to deliver its life’s mission should a middlin’ cook like me fail to notice the difference. You’d win a bet if you wagered that I had used the contents much more recently. How long since I thought to check the spice cabinet? Candidly, did I know spices actually expired?* What transpired in that kitchen, in that house, in the lives that intersected there, in those vanished years?
I squinted, looking away and remembering. A decade of blessing and tragedy, the bizarre and the humdrum. Two deaths in my family, my beloved younger sister and my cherished father. Joining memories of shattering heartbreak with those of indescribable joy, the two youngest lights of my life, a splendid grandson and his fabulous younger sister, arrived in that decade. New career opportunities transpired, after other ones proved painful disappointments. Dear friends gathered around my table, as often as I could manage it. Surely, on balance, they were 10 years that shared the same human peaks and valleys lived by so many.
Still, it was a life that did not require enough oregano to finish one lonely little bottle.
Seeking a better understanding of this Aging Herb Question, I made my way to the website of the venerable McCormick & Company, the world’s largest purveyor of spices, the ones with the red labels we all know. Behold, a section on How to Revive Old Spices! Alas, never mind: Its solutions revive those products that are “fading but not ancient.”
There was nothing for it but the trash can, and the thud of the containers hitting the side of the metal rings out with increasing speed as we pull out the remaining contents of the cabinet. A contest develops as we check the dates on each. I am proud (or despairing, depending on your perspective) to prevail, if you can call it that, with a box of cinnamon sticks that expired in 2005. Might have used those for holiday potpourri, I speculate as I fling the tiny red metal box toward its grave. Must not have been worth the effort to make again the next holiday season; who knows, 15 years later?
The renowned McCormick experts are not above injecting a little relationship coaching into their spice advice. Cleary, the challenge of “using up the spices” is global in scope, with many members in the family of us failures.
Honor the spices in your life, they advise, as if describing an unexpected inheritance or your grandmother’s precious china, by using them. “Enjoy some spice love! Don’t be shy when reaching for the curry powder or the allspice.”
Spice Love? (And personally, I wouldn’t sprinkle allspice on the soup bowl of my worse enemy.) I will settle for avoiding further Spice Shame, while thanking my lucky stars that only my discreet daughter was there to witness it. Many souls observed my other Moving Humiliations, like the charming young crew chief who encouraged me discreetly to vacuum the rug before he rolled it up, and the supportive friend who said nothing while wiping the detritus of a rotted green pepper out of the bottom of the vegetable drawer. But the Spice Shame is a secret my daughter and I can safeguard forever, a family secret to savor, you might say.
*Vanilla extract and salt, according to McCormick, are the only spices with indefinite life span. If you knew that already, your culinary knowledge far exceeds many of us. Would love an invitation to dinner at your convenience.