Dealing with Food Hoarders

Dear Helena,
Every time I go home to my parents' house, the state of their kitchen drives me nuts. They are crazy food hoarders. They often have moldy bread, packets of spaghetti from 1992, and assorted bits and pieces in murky Tupperware containers. Their freezer is always chock-full. This drives me nuts, and I get an uncontrollable urge to clean out their fridge, freezer, and pantry. But when I do, they get annoyed. One time I tossed a block of Valrhona chocolate that was ancient and beige and powdery, and my mom was pissed. Is it rude to clean out your host's kitchen, and how can I convince them that contrary to their beliefs, no food stays good forever?
—Mold Patrol

Dear Mold Patrol,
The rise of food hoarding began with advances in canning techniques in the late 19th century, says Harvey Levenstein, author of Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. In the 1950s, people thought that canned food would virtually displace fresh, and that in the future, people would barely cook at all. (Little did they know that many people would revert back to doing their own canning.)

Frozen food became popular in the late 1920s/early 1930s. At first, explains Levenstein, people looked down their noses at it, associating it with the fishmongers' practice of freezing leftover fish at the end of the week to make it last until Monday. But then Clarence Birdseye dramatically improved the quality of frozen food by introducing flash-freezing and waxed-cardboard packaging. More importantly, says Levenstein, Birdseye banished any lingering associations with old fish by relabeling his products as "frosted" food, which sounded classier.

Since then, food has become increasingly cheap, and with the rising popularity of wholesale price clubs like Costco, it has become even cheaper. No wonder people are hoarding, whether it's canned soup, "frosted" dinners, or flats of vitaminwater.

Some may ask what's wrong with stocking up? After all, if disaster strikes, such as a major hurricane, you won't go hungry. But stocking up easily leads to overstocking, and the result is food waste, a growing problem.

Unfortunately, you can't clean out your parents' pantry without permission, any more than you can take their old sweaters to Goodwill without telling them. And you'll never succeed in motivating them to de-clutter the pantry on their own. Hoarding has all kinds of complex motivations, and probably has its roots in childhood. You're not equipped to untangle the psychology behind it, and if you attempt to do so, you'll only unleash anxiety and rage.

Ignoring best-by dates might gross you out, but let me reassure you that this habit is unlikely to be toxic. Scott Hurd, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Risk Assessment and Hazard Identification in Foods of Animal Origin at Iowa State University, says: "The sell-by date ... is a tool for inventory control [by the retailer] more than anything else; it has virtually nothing to do with food safety." The only generally reliable way to figure out if something is edible is to give it a good sniff, explains Hurd. "Canned food will probably keep almost forever until the can actually starts to decompose, as long as there are no holes or rust spots."

And what if you encounter an ingredient that could actually be dangerous to consume—beans in a rusted can or perhaps a bag of flour infested with moths? My advice is to stuff it deep, deep into the trash. Trust me, your parents have no idea what they actually have in their pantry, so they won't even notice that it's gone.

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.