The Good, the Bad and the Rancid

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:34 PM

Ithink what I miss most about my wife since she moved to The Hague is her nose. There's nothing particularly striking about her nose. It isn't a Streisand schnoz or a Witherspoon button. But the family could always depend on it when determining whether something was Good or Bad.

Ruth's nose was the nose of last resort when it came to deciding whether the incipient decay present in a certain food item had shaded just a little too far into outright putrefaction.

You see, I believe anything I read. So if the skim milk says "Best before 03-08-11" and it's 03-09-11, I'm ready to pour it down the drain, no questions asked. But Ruth was the Mold Whisperer. Unsure of our own olfactory skills, we would hand her the jug and wait for her verdict. "This milk is fine," she'd usually say after a sniff, and we would abide by her oracular pronouncements.

This was just one of the responsibilities I had to take on when Ruth took a job overseas. Related to this, of course, is the basic matter of feeding the family.

The dog is easy: a cup of kibble in the morning and another cup at night. After that, it gets complicated.

I have at least achieved a certain baseline competence when it comes to cooking. My teenage daughter, Beatrice, and I have not starved. We have not developed scurvy or rickets. But I would not say that it's like living with Julia Child around here. I don't exactly look forward to standing in the kitchen each evening.

To make things manageable, I decided early on that we would do one takeout dinner a week, often Chinese. A frozen pizza takes care of another night. Another night I have dubbed "Crockpot Thursday," for obvious reasons.

Beatrice does not look forward to Thursdays. She is of the opinion that no matter what you put in a crockpot - chicken, pork, steak, sausage, puffer fish, grapefruit, Mentos - it comes out tasting exactly the same. The crockpot is a magic portal that transforms every meal into chicken cacciatore.

Part of the problem might be that every single crockpot recipe I've come across calls for a can of diced tomatoes. Which brings me to shopping, the part of eating you never think about if you don't do most of the cooking.

I've been to the grocery store plenty of times with My Lovely Wife, but I'd never examined it on such a granular level before.

What an amazing place the canned food aisle is! There are whole tomatoes. There are pureed tomatoes. There are diced and crushed and stewed tomatoes. There are petite diced tomatoes. There are chunky crushed tomatoes. There are diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano. And with roasted garlic and onion. And with zesty jalapeno. There is tomato sauce, which I guess is different from ketchup. There is tomato paste, in those six-ounce cans reminiscent of a depleted uranium charge.

Yet one thing is lacking in all this tomato plenty: 14.5-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes. Oh, there are crushed tomatoes, but they're in 28-ounce cans. All my crockpot recipes call for the smaller ones. I think this is a plot to get people to leave open cans of crushed tomatoes in their refrigerators. The tomatoes go bad, and the customer has to buy another can.

And so I miss Ruth's nose. A few weeks ago I remembered I had some chicken breasts at the back of the fridge. I'd taken them down from the freezer and let them thaw. How long had they spent in cryogenic storage? How old were they really?

I opened the Ziploc bag and smelled. To be honest, it was not a good smell. But was it a Bad smell? Was it bad enough to throw out $6 worth of chicken breasts?

I tried thinking: WWRD? What would Ruth do? She would cook them up, and so I did.

I dreamed of salmonella all night. But in the morning I was fine. I think that counts as progress.

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