Kitchen cleanup

Confessions of a hoarder

January 17, 2008

I happen to love the seasonal rituals of the home — switching summer clothes for winter ones in the fall, then back again in the spring, or washing all those south-facing windows once the leaves have fallen from the trees, and we’re forced by the sunlight to see all the dust and grime that accumulated during summer months.

Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out of my office and do something more strenuous than type, but cleaning and shifting stuff around, like cleaning off my office desk, somehow clears the mind along with the clutter.

January is not only a good time to list our good intentions for the coming year, it’s also a great time to clean the kitchen inside and out. There’s something good about starting the year with clean slates of all kinds, and for me, the most important one is in the kitchen, where I spend a great deal of my time and my creative energies.

In fact, the new year has become, for me, the most reliable occasion, though certainly not the only one, for giving my refrigerator and cupboards a good going-over. Everything gets cleaned, assessed, and accounted for, but these harbored contents are not just dull, inanimate things. They also serve as mirrors to my world of the past 12 months.

Deborah Madison’s collection of cooking oils.

Sometimes the mirror is of the funhouse variety, distorting what I think of as my reality. Do I really still have that old jar of argon oil from a trip to Morocco so many years ago, or that sack of jerky given to me quite some time ago? Apparently I do! Or what about that flaxseed oil I had promised to take daily but didn’t? I sniff it; it seems OK still.

I check all my oils to make sure they’re fresh and not rancid. But what these three things say is that because the argon oil is too precious to use, it simply dwells on its shelf in the refrigerator door. I’m just not a jerky eater, I’m really not, and apparently my intentions differ from my actions when it comes to following through with healthful regimens. Even in something as mundane as the contents of our refrigerators, there’s no escaping ourselves. It’s time to get on with things: use that argon oil, share the jerky, give that flaxseed oil a better try.

So everything comes out of the fridge. All the bins get scrubbed in hot soapy water, and the side-door shelves get re-lined with tinfoil because the jars and bottles of oils that I keep there tend to leak their contents — how, I can’t explain — and leave an unattractive deposit that calls for elbow grease.

While going through this little cleaning ritual, I’m always amazed that I can count on finding a jar with three olives floating in brine, and another with two pieces of herring swimming in their vinegar sea. What is it about the last few pieces of things that allow them to linger so? Won’t someone please just polish off those olives? And who knows why there are three jars of opened mustard, but there they are.

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Worse is that shelf of condiments, most of which I don’t recall shopping for, though I do remember buying that jar of Crystal hot sauce in New Orleans years before Katrina. It seems to be immutably shelf-stable. As I do each year, I give it a sniff and think, “I should use this!” But in the end, it never seems to win my interest over the warmer, less sour flavor of the salsas I’ve grown to prefer. This year I finally tossed it.

Throwing food away isn’t easy to do, but doing so relieves the clutter not only in my refrigerator but in my palate and mind as well. If I’m honest about what I toss and what I keep, I have to conclude that I don’t want all the tastes of the world on my shelves quite as much as I used to. Rather, I prefer to have only those that I really use.

This means that the Thai curry pastes and chutneys stay, along with the miso, chipotle salsas, and a bevy of oils — walnut, sesame, sunflower seed, olive, and almond. But the jerk sauces and weird concoctions go. And that argon oil, which is truly delicious and hard to find, gets shared with those who are not so clutchy about valuables. The small bottle I keep for myself will be used. As a kid, I could keep Halloween candy for at least six months, but it’s far time for me to be more expansive and less of a hoarder, even if that’s my nature.

One vegetable bin is filled with gem-like dried fruits collected from various farmers’ markets. I pull out a bag of Arctic Rose nectarines and firm up my intention to use them, because if I don’t and they stay hidden away, I’ll forget that they’re there and before you know it, fresh nectarines will be here once again. The same goes for the bags of nuts squirreled away in the freezer, between the frozen persimmon, tomato, and sorrel purées. None of this is any good if you don’t get around to using it.

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1. by Katia on Jan 23, 2008 at 9:30 AM PST

I can relate so much to your kitchen clean-up. I have yet to do the spring cleaning, but it seems whenever I do I find a plethora of unexpected and forgoten items I accumulated (hoarded!). Every time I do it I feel refreshed- it’s a wonder I don’t do this more often. Thanks for the reminder, I shall do it today! :)

2. by anonymous on Jan 23, 2008 at 4:11 PM PST

I’m the same way about hoarding. My Boyfriend thinks it’s an addiction but... Sometimes it’s fun (like a little srprise) finding those cans or packages that have been pushed to teh back of the cupboard. And it is just so much more economical to buy bigger sizes of things...unless I fail to use them up before they go bad.

3. by Stefanie on Feb 17, 2008 at 3:13 PM PST

Just since the New Year, I’ve started using some of the harvest I stashed away in my freezer last summer and fall. Raspberries and Boysenberries went into smoothies, tomato sauce into a saucepan with a little half-and-half for soup, roasted peppers into chile verde, and applesauce, spiced with ginger and frozen into cubes, went into some rather delightful muffins. I’m loving that despite the wind and weather, everything tastes savory yet fresh at the same time.

4. by asides on Feb 20, 2009 at 9:35 AM PST

This is something I really need to do, in cleaning my house for a one week rental I keep wondering if I need all the random clutter, but I keep boxing things in my kitchen, (what if the renter used all my baking pans? or all the flour?) I know it’s insane but you can find my priorities, lol. It’s like picking what to keep if a fire ran through.

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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