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Originally published August 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 29, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Taste of the Town

Those pickles are from when?

When my husband goes to Chicago to visit his mother, I fear for his safe return. It's not the air travel that frightens me, nor the chance that he'll be blown around the Windy City, or taken out by an urban thug. I'm afraid his mother is going to poison him.

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Food for Thought with Nancy Leson

Subscribe to podcasts of Nancy Leson's radio commentaries at seattletimes.com/restaurants. Or listen every Wednesday at 5:35 a.m. and 7:35 a.m. or on Saturday at 8:35 a.m. on KPLU-FM (88.5).

When my husband goes to Chicago to visit his mother, I fear for his safe return. It's not the air travel that frightens me, nor the chance that he'll be blown around the Windy City, or taken out by an urban thug. I'm afraid his mother is going to poison him.

"How was your flight?" I asked, touching base one evening by phone. "Great!" he said. "Mom and I are just sitting down to dinner."

"Oh. And what (here's the part where I began to cringe) are you eating?"

"Well, Mom has a nice canned ham," he said. "And a nice box of frozen peas. And a very nice box of potato flakes."

Call me a snob, but it wasn't the idea of those cans and the boxes that made this fresh-food fanatic fear for my husband's life. It was the code-word "nice." Translation: Food that's been around since the Eisenhower era.

That canned ham? It came with a key, used to open the lid, under which he'd found a layer of "cement" that in its previous life had been gelatin. The peas were so shriveled and freezer-burnt they looked like the dried legumes we buy in a bag, for soup. Those potato flakes? Cheddar-cheese flavored and at least 10 years old.

The worst part of that story? He ate the stuff. The best part? He lived to tell the tale. And having grown up as the child of a happy homemaker whose sense of frugality was honed during the Great Depression, believe me, he's got a million of them:

There's the steel can of Budweiser he unearthed last year from the recesses of his mother's funky fridge. Had he deemed to drink it, she had a church-key opener handy. He's still telling the story of the Claussen "refrigerator" pickles that rested undisturbed in the cupboard for years — until his mom tried to serve them to guests. ("When she unscrewed the lid, the pickles effervesced, like Champagne.") And then there's the teabag she uses and re-uses and re-uses, until the ring around her teacup is six shades darker than the tea she's drinking.

And don't get me started about the umpteen science projects in that over-stuffed refrigerator: each carefully wrapped with "tin foil" and secured with an aging rubber band. Oh, how I long to throw them away! Oh, how she'd hate me for it.

My husband and I are still laughing over my first visit with his mother. We arrived at her door clutching a dozen warm bagels (forewarned is forearmed). And when she turned to me and said, "You shouldn't have!" she actually meant it — insisting we put the fresh bagels directly into the freezer, from which she pulled out some "nice" hoar-frosted bagels instead.

Bless her heart, she even laughs with us — each Halloween, when we suggest she get rid of her collection of half-empty liquor bottles (volatilized and untouched for 30 years), by passing them out to the neighbor kids.

Lest I sound as if I'm singling out my mother-in-law — and by association, my husband — rest assured that I, too, come from a long line of, er, culinary "collectors."

My grandmother never met a margarine tub or frozen-TV dinner-tray she didn't clean, stack and keep. And when my dad died in November, the last thing he saw as the medics carried him out the door was the case of pickled Japanese vegetables I'd just UPS'd to California — at his special request. Little did I know, when I turned him on to the joys of Central Market's Asian canned goods a month earlier, their pickles would be joining a cast of thousands in his bulging pantry.

And "bulging" is the operative word. I was blissfully unaware that dad had been amassing jars and cans of pickled eggplant, Indian chutneys, imported cuttlefish and stuffed grape-leaves — much of which was past its prime when my stepmother and I pitched it post-memorial. "If he were alive to see us doing this," she told me, shoving yet another leaking jar into the trash, "he'd kill us." "Hell," I said, "if we'd eaten this stuff while he was alive, we'd be dead, too!"

Apparently, I'm far from alone. Many of my friends have stories of parents constitutionally incapable of throwing away "perfectly good food."

On a recent visit to her in-laws' home, my friend Evelyn watched as her husband drank some liquid courage, confronted his favorite octogenarians, and insisted the time had come to clean out their honking-big refrigerator. She describes the fridge as "chockfull of tiny little mustard jars and maraschino jars that had been cleaned out and reused" — though neither Evelyn, nor her husband, could describe what was in them.

"He went to the door of the fridge and started pulling stuff out," she recalls. And when he prepared to toss a bottle of hoisin sauce with a "use-by" date that came — and went — a dozen years ago, his mother practically rose from her wheelchair, screeching, "Don't! I use that all the time!"

Another friend (who wishes to remain anonymous, lest her mother disown her) says the family joke around the kitchen table at her mom's house involves a picnic-style squeeze-bottle filled with ketchup. That vintage condiment has been a fixture in the fridge since my friend, who's pushing 30, was in high school. Unfortunately her mother — who doesn't use ketchup — fails to see the humor.

Mom lives alone, and in recent years her ketchup bottle sees a squeeze maybe once or twice annually. When my pal, her older brother and his wife sat down to dinner not too long ago, the sorry state of that bottle came under discussion. And when talk turned to pitching it, "my mom said the same thing she always said when we brought up concerns about her decades-old condiments, spices and baking ingredients: 'They're just FINE!' "

Convening again after last winter's big windstorm, the siblings listened as their mother went into a lengthy harangue, lamenting the loss of power — and the entire contents of her refrigerator. Exchanging glances, they tried hard to not bust a gut.

My buddy Lynne tells the story of her elderly mother, whose Oregon beach house was the site of many festive Thanksgiving dinners. Those festivities involved her mom's roasted turkey and a stuffing recipe that called for onions browned in bacon grease, amassed from the leftovers of years-worth's of Sunday breakfasts, saved in an ages-old crock in the refrigerator.

I can imagine the horrified look on guests' faces had they known their "delicious" stuffing had been flavored with ancient bacon grease. But Lynne doesn't have to imagine the look on her mother's face the day she learned that crock had disappeared: She witnessed it.

"A friend of mine spent a week at our beach house," she recalls, and in an attempt to show her appreciation for the use of the house, decided to clean out the fridge. Out went the crock — as Lynne's furious mother would note in November. What's more, said Lynne, "my friend was appalled at how old the condiments were, so she posted little stickers on each one that read, 'toss out if not used by Labor Day.' " Those stickers were still there several years later, when Lynne did her post-funeral purge.

My husband is overdue for another trip to Chicago. And while I continue to worry about his potential for poisoning himself while there, I've come to believe it's that very food that has kept my mother-in-law alive. Born when Woodrow Wilson was president, I'm certain she'll live to see the first female in the Oval Office. And if she's done that by subsisting on foods from Ike's time, then she obviously knows something I don't.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

More columns available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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