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The Hoarding of Fine Foodstuffs

July 22, 2014

Last summer when I was visiting my aunt in East Hampton, I was dismayed at what I found in her pantry. It was so overloaded with magnificent foodstuffs that she didn’t even know what was in there. In particular, I found a sealed tube of imported anchovy paste that had been there so long that it was well past its expiration date.

Stuff like this happens to everyone. The proof is in your spice cabinet. How many jars do you have in your possession that are over a year old? Two years old? Five years old? More?

Over the past year and change, I’ve been doing a lot of streamlining in the kitchen. Mrs. Fussy probably would laugh to hear it. But dammit, it’s true. Old spices have been tossed. A few have been replaced or replenished.

The problem, however, goes far beyond spices. The solution is fairly straightforward and begins with a simple mantra, “Food is for eating.”

Sometimes this is hard to remember. Especially when one goes to a fancy food store and encounters shelves of products that are carefully curated with elaborate descriptions. Those long aged bottles of vinegar or bronze-die-extruded pastas are certainly special.

Just don’t wait for the perfect special occasion to enjoy them. The food you buy isn’t getting any better sitting around while you are not eating it. Remember, food is for eating.

Part of the problem is that fancy foods can sometimes come in containers that are too large. If you are only using your roasted pumpkin seed oil as a vanilla ice cream topping and to drizzle over finished dishes, even a modest sized bottle is going to last a really really long time. In some ways I suppose this is a mixed blessing. The more times you get to use an expensive ingredient, and the more pleasure it brings you, the greater its value.

However, if you get tired of experiencing the same old flavors, that precious bottle of oil may get moved to a higher shelf and forgotten about for a while. And then perhaps a while longer.

I’m a sucker for vinegars, oils and mustards. So I’m establishing some limits.

As much as I’d love a library of olive oils reflecting their unique varietal and regional flavors, I’m keeping it down to two. One for cooking and one for dressing. The dressing/finishing oil is always going to be a smaller bottle, so I can keep trying new and aromatic options, and occasionally returning to ones I enjoy.

Vinegars are a bit more tricky. I have one sweet and concentrated aged balsamic, one deeply flavorful and aged sherry vinegar, a workhorse Italian white wine vinegar, an apple cider vinegar, and a rice vinegar. There are so many more that I want, but even this list seems a bit large.

One thing that makes ingredient simplification easier is committing to certain cooking styles. I cook mostly Asian and Mediterranean, especially in the summer. I suspect that when fall starts rolling around, Asian will give way to Indian and my pantry components will change. Brown sugar will move over to jaggery. Peanut oil will be replaced by ghee.

But these choices are driven by my personal tastes and what I crave during the different times of year. Your milage may vary.

Still, it’s a fool’s errand to try and keep a home kitchen stocked for any contingency. Ingredients get lost or forgotten, their quality diminishes, and they go to waste. So get disciplined. Buy less, and in smaller quantities. Then you can buy it more often, after you run out.

It’s not easy. But it’s incredibly satisfying to make a dent in that bottle of first pressed fish sauce. And if you are having problems getting one ingredient out of your house, just make it the ingredient of the week. Then you can find recipes that use it up.

Good luck. And remember, food is for eating.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2014 9:56 pm

    I certainly hope you did not tamper with your aunt’s tube of anchovy paste. The stuff lasts forever, regardless of what some food safety know-it-all forces them to stamp as an expiration date.

    • July 22, 2014 10:39 pm

      The salt in that stuff will make it last forever. All of the Roman amphoras that we used to think were filled with olive oil were actually filled with fish oil.

  2. Katie Wilson permalink
    July 24, 2014 12:39 pm

    I often head to the bulk section at Honest Weight for the” trying for the first time” recipe or for the expensive spice element I may not use again for too long. Not as glamorous as a fancy food store with rows of enticingly arrayed and packaged ingredients, and by no means does this establishment have everything, but if it does work out, and they do have what is needed it might mean the difference between spending fifty or sixty cents at the co-op versus five, six, seven or more dollars elsewhere only to be left with far more than is needed. Plus I don’t get over to the co-op very often and it’s fun to take a look around.

  3. July 25, 2014 4:02 pm

    I thought you were going to recommend a swapmeet for all those things we bought in quantities that outlasted our interests. I guess that’s up to me. Maybe twice each year.

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