The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 23, 2011

MICHELE M. BENDER | Refrigerator sharing breeds chilling tales

Michele M. Bender
For The Tribune-Democrat

— We called my Aunt Ethel’s refrigerator “Jaws.” Food went in but seldom emerged recognizable.

Ethel grew up during the Depression and hated to discard anything.

“Rancid?” she’d question, sniffing the contents of a jar eight or nine times. “No! That’s still good.”

When she traveled, Mom and I would raid Jaws, tossing everything iffy or outdated.

Once we held a “Name-the-mystery-meat” contest. Friends and neighbors dropped quarters in a jar for a chance to guess the identity of four slices of long-expired lunch meat sealed in a Ziploc bag.

Our friend, Donna, won the $1.75 pot by correctly guessing Lebanon bologna.

The Ethel experiences taught me to be cautious about snooping in strange refrigerators.

In the mid-’70s, I rented a room out in my two-bedroom house. Jenny, my tenant, attended UPJ. Part of our rental agreement included fridge space.

She liked “natural” beauty products and often made wrinkle treatments, skin exfoliants and face masks out of ingredients like yogurt, avocadoes and herbs.

Jenny prepared tasty meals, too, and sometimes offered me some, but eating spicy dishes and smearing pulverized kiwi on my cheeks simply didn’t work for me.

My cooking abilities are limited.

That summer, I dated Bud, who enthusiastically accepted dinner invitations from me, and enjoyed the meal as if it had been prepared for him by Emeril.

One evening, Bud arrived early for our date.

“Make yourself at home,” I called down the steps. Ten minutes later, I walked into the kitchen. Bud, seated at the table, had a beer and the Tupperware container filled with Jenny’s latest facial treatment.

He was spreading the mixture on Ritz crackers.

“This dip is GREAT!” he exclaimed, looking up. “You have to teach me how to make it.”

I never told him the truth, but I had to tell Jenny. She probably hasn’t stopped laughing yet.

I’m away from home right now, once again sharing a fridge with people I scarcely know. Lots of food disappears from our “community Kenmore.” Lunches, yogurt, fruit and more mysteriously vanish.

I was robbed of Wendy’s chili and a container of KFC green beans.

One evening, Joe brought me a surprise – my favorite homemade soup from the Phoenix in Cambria City: Crab bisque. It was too much for me to finish and the idea of it being pilfered by food bandits broke my heart.

I stared at the white styrofoam container, half full of my heavenly treat. I got an idea.

I took a marker and, on the side of the container, neatly printed “Parsnip-Rhubarb Chowder.”

No one touched it!

Michele Mikesic Bender is a Johnstown resident and a member of  The Tribune-Democrat’s Readership Advisory Committee.