Baltimore writer and cabinetmaker Danielle Ariano describes her mother’s super strict policy never to waste anything edible–and how it has affected her own approach to food and life.
My mother washes out plastic baggies. Not the kind that they give you at the grocery store checkout, the kind you buy. The kind with zippers. Sometimes when I visit, I’ll find one drying in her drain board, looking like a dead jellyfish.
“What are you doing with that thing?” I’ll tease.
“What do you mean?” she’ll ask, waving her hands in the air, making tiny karate chop-like motions, “That’s still good.”
My mom is the ultimate conservationist—a trait that has little to do with saving the earth and much to do with the fact that she simply cannot stand the idea of throwing something away while it still has a use or a potential use or a possible potential use. She’s not a hoarder. She happily recycles her junk mail on a daily basis and there are no goat trails in my parents’ home. It’s just that she can’t stand to see things go to waste.
When my mother sees someone throw something away, she says, “Oh, that’s a sin.”
Literally, every time.
“Oh that’s a sin.”
My mother’s affinity for avoiding waste sometimes results in ridiculous outcomes. When my parents’ got their kitchen redone a couple of years ago, for example, they decided to keep the cheap, white cabinets that came with the house because there was nothing wrong with them. On its own, this detail isn’t all that outrageous. In fact, it might sound slightly noble. And it would’ve made perfect sense, if not for the fact that they had expensive marble tile laid on the floor and lovely granite countertops set on top of the cheap, white cabinets.
My mother also saves things for sentimental reasons. She has this statue of a frog playing tennis because it was a gift and it’s cute and daddy plays tennis. So the frog, in all of its colorful, tennis racket swinging glory, has a place of honor in their remodeled kitchen where it sits on top of the lovely counters, which sit atop the cheap cabinets, which rest on the expensive tile.
I understand this pull toward sentimentality. I have t-shirts in my drawers that are over 12 years old; I’ve got shoeboxes full of cards and letters dating back to the 90s. These are items I’ve carried with me from place to place. I know it’s not easy, parting with things that remind us of people long gone, whether that means others or some old version of ourselves. But there’s got to be a line.
Recently, my parents moved from a spacious Tudor home, into a temporary apartment before finally settling in a townhouse. When I came up to help them pack, there was a pile of my old stuff—high school yearbooks, newspapers, a bag of photos, stacks of trophies from my days in karate and lacrosse.
My parents had given me fair warning that I’d have to go through this pile, so as I drove the two hours to their home, I did my best to steel myself against allowing sentimentality to creep into my decisions about what to save and what to get rid of.
I will not drive back to Baltimore with a car full stuff, I told myself over and over, I will not.
When I got to the house, I put the yearbooks and photos aside and carried the rest of the things to the trash.
“Don’t you want those?” my mother asked, pointing at the trophies.
“No,” I said firmly.
“What about that one?”
She motioned toward a four-foot trophy. At the top was a gold figurine of a man with his leg extended in a graceful side kick. It was from the karate world championship. When I’d received it, I’d stood the same height as the trophy. There was a bronze medal with a red, white, and blue ribbon draped around it, a prize from another tournament.
“That’s from the world championship,” she said.
“I know, but what am I going to do with it? I’d just put it in the basement.”
“Well, what about the medal? Don’t you at least want that?”
I looked at it, considering for a moment. It was small and wouldn’t take up much space. Just a tiny memento. Maybe I could show it to my future kids and tell them stories about how I used to spar against boys.
As I stood there pondering, my mind traveled back to the day my eight-year-old self competed for the first time in a sparring match against a handful of boys and one very tall girl. I could still see my mother and father standing on the side of the mat. Worried expressions beset their faces. My mother clutched her purse tensely as I sparred. I advanced through the heats until eventually I was matched up against the tall girl.
“She’s too big,” my mother complained to the judges, who shrugged and told her that the competitors had been slotted by age, not size.
“This isn’t right,” she said indignantly.
When the commotion was settled, the tall girl and I took our places on the mat. We bowed to the judges, then to each other, and the match began. To my surprise I found that her height left a number of open areas for me to attack. A few minutes later the floor judge was raising my right arm and declaring me the winner.
Maybe saving one medal wouldn’t hurt. For posterity.
“No,” I said suddenly, trying to reel myself back in. Before I could change my mind, I turned around and marched back inside the house leaving the red, white, and blue ribbon draped around the foot of the golden, side-kicking man. I didn’t need the medal to keep the memory.
But my mother must have felt differently. On the day that my parents finally moved out of their old home, I carried box after box of their belongings downstairs. As I grabbed the next, one of the flaps popped open and inside I spied the red, white, and blue ribbon from the medal. My mother must have retrieved it from the trash pile. I laughed to myself as I imagined her standing outside after I’d walked determinedly away. I could see her delicately lifting the medal, wrapping the ribbon around it and putting it in her pocket. Part of me thought it was ridiculous since the medal was likely going to wind up forgotten in a junk drawer, but part of me was touched. Was she saving it for me, in case I changed my mind? Would I change my mind?
Aside from the tennis-playing frog and the occasional recycled baggy, the most glaring example of my mom’s brand of conservationism can be found in her freezer. For her, it is practically sacrilegious to waste food, which makes the freezer a dangerous place. In the freezer, there is never any blatantly obvious reason to throw anything away. Just scrape it off, she’d say pointing to the glistening crystals of frostbite that covered the vanilla fudge swirl, underneath it’s just fine.
When my parent’s moved from their temporary apartment to their new townhouse, I found myself emptying the contents of the freezer into bags for transport to the new place. Among a slew of other things, I found two boxes of sugar-free lemon water ice that I suspect my mother had kept on hand for her diabetic father before he passed away, three strombolis bought from a fundraiser that I’d seen months earlier when they’d moved into the apartment, and a couple of containers of gravy circa the late 90s.
For as long as I can recall, my mother’s freezer has been full to the brim. Growing up, I learned to open the door with extreme caution. When I forgot and opened it with the wild abandon of a kid looking for a popsicle, inevitably a box of frozen spinach or one of those tubs of gravy, or even—shudder—a pound of hamburger came tumbling out. If I didn’t react quickly enough, these objects sometimes landed on my foot. There at the freezer door, some of my best dance moves were invented.
My father, on the other hand, wasn’t much of a kitchen dancer. He just wanted some goddamn ice cubes. Strings of curse words perpetually flew from his mouth when he opened the freezer. Even if he avoided the initial avalanche by opening with the utmost care, when he reached in to retrieve anything, it was a like a high stakes game of Jenga, and most of the time he lost.
Of course, nobody complained about my mother’s ability to produce delicious meals with items retrieved from the overflowing icebox even when it seemed that there was nothing to eat in the whole entire house. And nobody ever uttered a word of disapproval about the endless supply of frozen Snickers bars she kept in there.
A lesser woman would’ve answered our perpetual complaints about the freezer by angling for a bigger and better model, but my mother would never dream of doing such a thing since hers still worked just fine. She paid no mind to the fact that it was both small and a 70s shade of dull brown, so long as it kept the food cold.
The overstock problem carries into the refrigerator, although thanks to the fact that mold can indeed grow on food kept there, the situation is markedly less severe than the freezer. My mom is particularly fond of wrapping up single items: one piece of shrimp from a shrimp cocktail she made for a party, a lone piece of bacon from breakfast, one piece of cheese sliced from a block the previous night and enjoyed with crackers and wine, an orange slice, a pancake, a piece of toast. (Yes, toast. I’ll feed it to the birds.) On any given day, these items might be found wrapped up in a plastic baggie that she’ll probably wash out.
Though my mother’s quirky propensity to save things can be slightly mind-boggling, most of the time I find it quite endearing. In today’s throwaway culture, my mother is a vestige of a time when things were repaired rather than replaced; when things were used until they were no longer usable. If there were more people like her in the world, that infamous floating island of trash in the Pacific would probably not exist and there would most certainly be more food to go around since less would get wasted. Mostly, it’s a beautiful thing, which just so happens to be good news for me—this trait, whether through nature or nurture, has become part of me.
Though my own refrigerator tends to have much more white space and less random singles wrapped up, there are definite echoes of my lineage contained within. My crisper drawer houses produce that most normal human beings would discard. Carrots with white/green tentacles sprouting out the top? That’s okay. Pock marked zucchini? Mmmmmhmmm. Shriveled asparagus? Sure. Moldy cheese? Just cut it off.
When I do let something spoil, I hear my mother’s voice as I dispose of it: Oh that’s a sin.
Well, at least I compost, I reply defensively, which usually helps silence the voice for a time.
But lately I’ve noticed that this voice has begun to sound less like my mother and more like my own, which probably means that I’m doomed to a future of drain boards filled with washed out plastic baggies. I can live with that so long as I don’t start saving tennis frogs.
Danielle Ariano is a writer by night and a cabinetmaker by day. She holds an M.F.A in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Baltimore. Her work has also appeared in The Huffington Post, the light ekphrastic and Rufuos City Review.