Boomers Didn’t Need Expiration Dates

This past week Mister Boomer finished a container of milk. It had been the first he had been able to finish in a while, seeing as it usually spoiled sooner than the time it took to use it up. This container was particularly interesting, though, since it lasted 22 days past the expiration date marked on the side. Mister B dubbed it the “Chanukah Milk,” because it lasted far longer than anyone ever expected. “It’s a miracle,” he said, rinsing the quart container and dropping the plastic into the recycling bin.

Then he remembered recent articles that talked about how expiration dates on food packages are close to useless. Even though they are ubiquitous on all kinds of food items now, manufacturers can make the dates whatever they want, in addition to adopting the myriad of possibilities of “Sell By,” “Best By” or “Expires On.” All a consumer wants to know is, “Is this product safe to eat? And if I do, will it make me sick?” The USDA warns consumers that dates are there for “quality and not for safety.” Did you know there is no federal statute controlling the appearance, regulation of dates, or mandate on their use, except for infant formula? As Cecil the sea serpent used to say, “What the-e-e heck?!” Cynics say the dates persist because the manufacturers would rather we become paranoid and throw things out, so we have to buy more. There may be something to that, since Americans throw away 40 to 50 percent of the food they buy.

That got Mister B thinking that we didn’t have these expiration dates when we were young boomers. We had two simple tests: Does it look OK? Does it smell OK? The old adage went, “When in doubt, throw it out,” but that was because, as Jimmy Durante reminded us, “The nose knows.” So when did these expiration dates on packages first appear?

Believe it or not, many credit Al Capone with putting the first expiration dates on milk. The story goes that when gangster Al was trying to legitimize his businesses, he told his cohorts that his organization needed to invest in something that people used every day. He opined that beer and liquor — his main sources of income — were weekly purchases at best for most people. After a family member got sick drinking spoiled milk, it hit him that milk was the perfect legitimate business to explore. Al and Ralph Capone bought the Meadowmoor Dairies in Chicago in 1932, and quickly started to place the date the milk was packed on the containers, so consumers wouldn’t have the same problem as his family member.

Being the business man that he was, Mr. Capone attempted to corner the local milk market. He used his powers of persuasion to convince the Chicago City Council that dates on milk should be required by law, and he got his wish. Then he went to work trying to fix the price of milk with his competitors, and it didn’t hurt him any that with a new law on the books, he was the only one who had the stamping machinery that was now needed to be in compliance with the law. Voila! Dates on all milk appeared in Chicago.

Fast forward to the Boomer Generation. In the 1950s, it was standard industry practice for manufacturers — especially of canned goods — to stamp numerical or cryptic codes on their products. These codes were indecipherable by consumers, but were used by company workers to rotate warehouse stock and keep track of shipments.

As more people purchased processed foods in the 1960s, they began to worry about the quality and freshness of what was in the frozen foods they were buying. Yet it was 1970 before easily readable stamped dates began to appear across the country on store shelves for a wide variety of products. A survey in 1975 established that 85 percent of people preferred the Month, Day, Year configuration that is widely used today.

Mister Boomer recalls his mom employing the sniff test. Once he was sent back to the corner grocery when his mother declared that the container of cottage cheese she had just sent him to get was spoiled. It didn’t smell right to her, so back to the store Mister B went. After telling the old woman behind the counter the situation, she opened the lid and sniffed it herself. “Smells fine to me,” she said. Then, grossing Mister B out to no end, she dragged her finger across the untouched cottage cheese, scooping up a bit and tasting it. “Tastes fine to me,” she said. All a young Mister B could utter was that his mom didn’t think so and she said he should get another one from the store. Reluctantly, the woman gave Mister B another container and he ran home with it.

Do you have memories of utilizing the “sniff test,” boomers? Do you live by the dates that are stamped on your products today, or do you rely on the time-honored tradition that worked for our families for decades?

Boomer Families Embraced Meals Cooked in Electric Frying Pans

Mister Boomer’s mother, like a lot of mothers of boomers, was all for time-saving devices in the kitchen. Somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s, she saw one of Mister B’s aunts cooking with an electric frying pan, and she was convinced it was the appliance for her. Mister Boomer does not know the exact way her electric frying pan entered the house. It may have been a prize choice from one his father’s company golf tournaments, or she may have picked it up with trading stamps. Those two methods were the main sources of small appliances in the Boomer household.

The electric skillet had its origins in the 1910s, when Westinghouse introduced the first one. It was more of a hotplate for warming than cooking food. Sunbeam began selling actual electric frying pans in 1953 under the name Automatic Frypan. The unit was made of cast aluminum and was a rounded square shape for maximum cooking area. A matching cover was included. The electric elements were sealed in the bottom, so the entire pan part of the unit could be immersed in water for cleaning. Sunbeam released a stainless steel model a year later.

Mister Boomer does not recall the exact brand of his mother’s electric frying pan — it may have been Sunbeam or Westinghouse — but what he does remember is that the control unit was a separate black plastic square that plugged into the side of the pan. The unit had a dial that was marked off in degrees like an oven dial.

In a very short time, it became Mister B’s mom’s go-to device for cooking family meals, especially for braising. His mom used the appliance so often that it rarely left the kitchen counter. It resided next the the family’s beige-plastic radio that sported a burn mark from when his mother rested a lit cigarette on the top while she talked on the phone — which was on the adjoining wall.

Mister B recalls his mom making liver and onions, Chicken Cacciatore, short ribs and cabbage, pork chops and chuck steak with her electric frying pan. For her, the electric frying pan was the ultimate in one-pot cooking. Mister B watched his mother make Chicken Cacciatore many times. To the best of his recollection, here is how she made her version. The beauty of the recipe, if there was one, was that everything could be tossed into the pan and braised, with little or no attention.

4 packages of chicken thighs and drumsticks, cut into chunks
Vegetable oil
1 onion, cut into slices
1 green pepper, cut into chunks
1 stick celery, cut into chunks
1/3 to 1/2 bottle of Port wine
Small can of tomato sauce
Tablespoon of tomato paste

Mister B’s mom would heat up a little vegetable oil in the pan and let the chicken brown while she cut up the vegetables. As she finished each, she tossed it into the pan. When the onions became translucent, she added the can of tomato sauce and the tomato paste, along with a healthy dose of Port wine. She liked to drink Port, so there was always a bottle in the house. It was inexpensive since the brand she had on hand was always made in the state in which the Boomer family resided.

At that point she’d lower the temperature on the dial (was it 250ยบ? less?), put the cover on it, and walked away. An hour or so later, the alcohol was cooked out, the chicken was falling-off-the-bone soft and ready for the family. Sometimes she would serve it with rice, but more often than not, white Wonder bread was the accompaniment.

Her cast iron pan was still the item used for Sunday morning French toast, pancakes, eggs and creamed toast, but if braised meat was on the menu, the electric frying pan got the job.

Did your mom have an electric frying pan, boomers? If so, what was her favorite thing to cook in it?