J. E. Weiner
Footsteps. Damn, I have to move fast. I stand before the open refrigerator, a tub of Greek yogurt in hand. The staccato slap of flip-flops against the bottoms of bare feet grows louder. I quickly open the container and ease my face over its edge.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” my husband says. He’s standing right behind me.
I instinctively toss the container back inside. Its top, still loose, pops into the air, and creamy yogurt splatters across the glass shelf. I wipe up the drips with my hand and lick my palm with a shrug. My husband rolls his eyes and heads to the sink to fill the electric kettle.
More footsteps. This time it’s the soft pad of my youngest daughter’s slippers as she stumbles down the hallway. Still half asleep, she grumbles something unintelligible about hating school and slumps down into a chair at the table. I can just make out a frown through the tumble of long, tangled locks covering her face.
“Well good morning Miss Sunshine!” I say a little too cheerfully. “What’ll it be?”
“Cereal, but not that gross gluten-free stuff. The good kind,” she barks.
I pour her a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios—a compromise between the “gross stuff” I like and the sticky-sweet Frosted Flakes she prefers—and turn back to the refrigerator. My eyes come to rest upon the milk nestled into the door. I can see the liquid inside still near the top of the container. I glance back. My husband is busy measuring coffee grounds into the French press, and my daughter is squinting at the ceiling. Again, I have to be quick. I grab the milk and quickly unscrew the top. I lean in, my head now inside the refrigerator’s cool, white interior. I slowly slip my nose warily into the jug’s opening and inhale.
“For fuck’s sake, what are you doing?” my husband shouts across the kitchen.
I flinch, and the liquid shoots up straight into my nostrils. I sputter as the milk drips down the back of my throat. “It’s still good,” I say, smiling guiltily. The milk is now running down my chin and the front of my neck.
“Unbelievable,” my husband mutters as he hands me a dishtowel.
“Mom, you are so gross! I’d rather have rotten milk than booger milk,” my daughter cries.
“Let me tell you about rotten milk,” I start to respond, but she cuts me off.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know. Grandma was cheap. Didn’t buy fresh food. Milk was always sour. You’ve told me those stories a thousand times,” she says, stomping toward the freezer. “I changed my mind. I’ll have waffles instead.”
I gently place the milk back on the door and continue to stare into the open refrigerator. The top shelf holds two dozen eggs and several Pellegrino bottles lying side by side. The second shelf is filled with ample booty from a weekly raid on the local farmers’ market—fresh vegetables, spicy olives, and batons of dry salami encrusted in coarse ground pepper. Nearby, droplets of water glisten atop pints of fresh-washed berries in reusable punnets made from recycled plastic. The haul from the German butcher shop is wrapped neatly in thick white paper and tied with coarse string, the contents and nontrivial price of each package scribbled in thick black marker in the shop owner’s classic European hand.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I have a peculiar obsession with dairy products. But it is not born out of a lactose intolerant’s fear of flatulence, nor a vegan’s scorn for forced bovine labor. Rather, it is the residual echo of a childhood plagued by unexpected and highly unpleasant encounters with fuzzy yogurt and spoiled milk. Over the years, my husband and children have often wondered aloud about my unfounded paranoia, bourgeoise wastefulness, and fundamental sanity. But I simply cannot help myself. What may have once been an act of self-preservation is now indelibly seared into my genetic code and fuels my maternal instincts. No sip, spoonful, or dollop shall cross my family’s lips before passing a rigorous and unequivocal sniff test. That’s just the way it has to be.
Growing up, food was never scarce, but it was a precious and protected resource. My mother shopped for groceries once a week—and only once—on Sunday afternoons. With more than a full-time job as a grade school teacher, and kids’ sports games, house cleaning, and mountains of laundry on Saturdays, it was the only day of the week she had left for this task. The trip to the supermarket was a family affair, each member with their own embedded ritual. My parents would hash out a meticulous menu of seven breakfasts (at least three of which would have to be oatmeal), five dinners (on the assumption that leftovers would be stretched to cover the remaining two evening meals), and weekend lunches (to fill in for the school lunches my mother negotiated as part of her annual teaching salary). My two younger sisters took turns writing out the shopping list as my mother stood before the mostly empty refrigerator and called out the necessary staples such as milk, eggs, butter. Meanwhile, I would clip coupons from the Sunday paper and organize them into their respective categories: household cleaning supplies, canned goods, and the always coveted cereals such as Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles. My mother would tuck the list, the coupons, and a small calculator into her purse, and the two of us would set off on the weekly mission.
Once inside the store, our first stop was a section at the back wedged between the meat counter and dairy cases. A brightly colored sign advertising “Weekly Specials” hung overhead. I only learned many years later that Sunday was when baked goods and fresh foods nearing their “sell-by” date would be deeply discounted. Loaves of bread, dented cans of beans, packages of powdered donuts, and random vegetables laid out on small cardboard trays and covered with cellophane were splayed across folding tables and splattered with bright orange stickers on which “day old” or “half-price” was printed. A small refrigerated section nearby contained shelves of dairy products covered in similar stickers. My mother gently shook, squeezed, and poked each package to assess just how far gone the items were and turned each container around to inspect the expiration date, often counting the days before (and probably after) to determine how much longer we had before the product would go bad. She then placed a select few items that made her grade into our shopping cart. Balancing on the end of the basket, my feet planted on the support bar just above the front wheels and the top of the steel frame tucked under my armpits, I would enter the prices into the calculator as my mother called them out. “Remember to hit the plus sign after each entry, or we’ll have to start all over again,” she would remind me.
I recall the day when several flavors of fruit yogurt appeared in the specials section. Yogurt was a particular treat in our house, and my mother let me select the flavors: Boy-Oh-Boysenberry, Strawberry Surprise, and Rockin’ Raspberry. I would later hide one of the boysenberry yogurts—my favorite flavor—under the tomatoes in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator as a secret treat all my own. When I returned to retrieve the container, I found its contents covered in green fuzz. Desperate to try and salvage the snack, I scooped off the top layer and thrust my spoon to the bottom to bring up the luscious sweetened fruit. It looked fine, and so I took a large bite, only to discover that the entire carton was rancid. I spit the yogurt into the kitchen sink, my stomach lurching and heaving as I desperately tried to rinse the horrible taste from my tongue. My mother suddenly appeared and held my long braids back. She cupped her hand under the faucet to catch the water. “Uh oh. I guess we pushed that one too far,” she said with a half-hearted smile. I have never eaten boysenberry yogurt—or boysenberries, for that matter—since.
The meat counter was our next stop. There, we would pick up chicken drumsticks and thighs, packages of hot dogs, and an occasional pound or two of cubed beef for my father’s favorite dish, beef stroganoff. My mother always asked the butcher to weigh her selections twice before printing the price label and often had him take some of the pieces back if she thought she had gone over her budget for the week. We would then grab a head of iceberg lettuce, a few beefsteak tomatoes, and whatever fruit was in season in the produce section before heading to the center aisles. There we would load up on canned soup and vegetables, careful only to select the brands on sale. Depending on the calculator’s tally at the end of this rotation, we would occasionally make a final pass by the cereal, and I would get to pick one box to share with my little sisters.
When we returned home, my job was to put the groceries away, but my mother always made sure to hide the cereal box. She knew better than to leave it exposed in the pantry. Sugared cereal was like gold in our house, and it would not have lasted a minute in plain sight. My sisters and I would have to wait until the following weekend. After we were asleep on Friday nights, my mother would retrieve the box from her secret food vault and set it out on the kitchen table. When we crawled out of bed the next morning to watch cartoons, we were allowed to open it, and if we let our parents sleep in and didn’t fight over the prize inside we could have seconds, which usually finished the contents off in one sitting.
To be clear, not being a sniff tester at the time had severe consequences. Early one Saturday, my sisters and I ran to the kitchen to break open the wildly popular new cereal called Cookie Crisp. We had been dreaming about trying it all week. We grabbed large bowls from the cupboard and filled them to their brims. No seconds that day, only firsts! I retrieved the last of the week’s milk from the refrigerator and proceeded to pour it into each of our bowls in the dim morning light. We could barely contain ourselves, scooping up the biggest bites of cereal we could and stuffing them into our mouths. The sour taste and curdled texture of the rotten milk took a moment to register amidst the sweetness and crispness of the miniature chocolate chip cookies, but when they did, the three of us spat the contents of our mouths back into our bowls and began to howl. Our mother ran from her room initially poised to scold, but when she understood what had happened, she quietly cleared the table and poured the cereal down the drain. “So sorry, girls,” she whispered, shame creeping into her voice. “I’ll make some toast instead.” Cookie Crisp was ruined forever.
“Coffee’s ready.” My husband’s deep voice draws me back to the present. “Can you grab the half-and-half and close the fridge already?”
I smile and retrieve the small bottle next to the milk, unscrewing the top and taking a deep and unapologetic whiff as I sit down at the table.
“Mommy’s hopeless,” my husband winks at our daughter. She nods and stuffs a last bite of waffle into her mouth.
Call me crazy. Chastise me. Do what you must. But sniff I will, because it is not about the yogurt or the milk. The sniff test is about being a mother, nourishing myself and my brood, and it reminds me every day that plenty is a privilege.