It is not so well known, except in certain circles, that I once threw a cheesesteak at someone’s head.
This was early in college, which is starting to be a long time ago now. The quarrel, I won’t get into. The cheesesteak was freshly delivered, full of onions and ketchup. The friend who was the target of my meaty rancor was nimble enough to duck under my soft, warm, wrapped projectile. The hurtling food instead hit a door, leaving a red condimenty splotch below the spyhole.
When it comes to food, I am apparently dangerous not only with a cheesesteak in my hands. It also turns out I can terrorize an office, in the unofficial role of Fridge Czar.
Our office fridge has only a little in common with a home fridge. Most people I know, when they are at home, use a fridge to keep desirable food from spoiling. At our office, many people seem to think of the fridge as a place to hide food from themselves.
So about twice a year, we reach a point when we can no longer open the door without something falling out. Recently, two supermarket bags full of forgotten produce —blackened bananas, mold-encrusted strawberries — lay sprawled across one whole shelf like feckless teens. Scattered throughout were mostly empty tubs of butter and cream cheese. Our collection of half-consumed 2012 Snapple was extensive.
When I first became Fridge Czar, back around 2007, I would implore my co-workers via E-mail to pretty please, check and see if they’d forgotten anything. You know, whenever they had a chance, no biggie.
That approach did not work.
I’d go back three days later and if anything, there was more stuff than before. Jars of mustard, herbal teas, yogurt, fruit cups, expired, expired, expired, expired. I now know that if you leave baby carrots in a refrigerator long enough, they will shrivel and shrink until they almost, but not quite, disappear.
Once we were beset by a half dozen bags of what appeared to be decent, square meals, all decomposing, all untouched. No one would claim them. Was there a single culprit? Or a bandit gang of lunch shunners? It was difficult to say.
One of the paradoxes of our office fridge chaos is that it’s such polite chaos. Nobody labels their food because food is almost never stolen. If someone does eat your sandwich or drink your root beer, they probably thought it was their own. So nobody feels the need to safeguard their food, which is nice.
There’s a flip side. When unlabeled food goes unclaimed, a Fridge Czar is baffled. It’s easy enough to discard a withered apple or a brown paper lunch bag that contains, inexplicably, only a year-old bag of Fritos. But what to do with jilted Tupperware? Sturdy Rubbermaid containers, mercifully well sealed, but laden with two pounds of moldering, bone-in pork chops?
To properly judge the viability of the food in the office fridge, one must use all of his senses. Smell is obvious enough. Visual inspection is not as reliable as it would seem; I often find the sense of touch to be the most trustworthy. Is bread pliable or stiff? Does the food shift clumpily within its container, or slide gracefully about, lubricated by sauce that is still fresh? Sometimes instinct is all you can rely upon.
I had a tough-love mentality. For a while, that approach worked. But you know how these things go. People change; a schtick gets old. My fridge memos, once cute or funny, start to seem bitter, biting. Genuine. People didn’t know if I was joking. Then I didn’t know.
The handwriting was on the wall for me this last time out. First I improperly clocked a disposable container of pulled pork. I rattled it: it sounded like wood. Only later did I learn, via whispers, that I’d chucked a fresh lunch. Hours old, not weeks. I’d gotten it wrong.
Then there was all the pasta. Heaps and heaps of it, good looking stuff. Beautiful big meatballs, substantial sausages, robust rigatoni in handsome containers worth conserving. In my memo I lamented the impending loss. Who would abandon fine food like this?
So I waited to toss it. I asked around, went from desk to desk. Is this yours? Is this yours? Is it new? Is it old? I sent texts. To every person in the office. The pasta had no owner.
I later learned that twice that day, I did encounter the person whose meals they were. Twice she denied ownership. She could not bear for me to know they were hers. I was too fearsome, too harsh a judge. Another person in the office claimed them out of sympathy; he was the fall guy, could take what I could dish out.
But sooner or later, the truth came out. And not just about the pasta.
Once, as Fridge Czar, I had served a purpose. I served the people. But then one day it was no longer about the work. It was about how clever I could be, how ruthless. At the end, I wasted as much food as anyone had, throwing away perfectly good grub, or leaving colleagues to cower in the shadow of my faulty judgment. Maybe those meatballs could have been saved. Maybe I killed them.
The next Fridge Czar of our office will do things his or her own way, and that’s how it should be. My day came and has gone, and I don’t regret it. No one should be at the mercy of a scoundrel. People should be able to chill, and hide, their food in peace.
Editor’s note: Since this column was written, a new Fridge Czar has seized power at 15 Princess Road, home of Community News Service, where Emanski serves as managing editor. The new czar has imposed an even stricter and more authoritarian food regime.