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Other Writings and Recipes

Labeled Astray

Vidhi Dattani

I was setting up for a workshop last week, which included pulling dozens of prepared items from the refrigerator.  We always start with a nice lunch, and I often marinate olives to match whatever we’ll eat that day.  I wanted to give the olives time to warm up before serving.

The olives filled a plastic quart container, one identical to the three-dozen others clustered in the fridge.  I had prepared them a week before, blanching and smashing the tight picholine flesh, then submerging them in anchovy oil, swimming with lemon zest, the fish themselves, slivers of garlic and bay leaves.  But in the pre-class shuffle, the olives got lost in the fridge.

Refrigerator blindness is a common, frustrating affliction.  In a professional kitchen, especially, it is anathema to enlist someone to find something, interrupting their work just to help you “look harder.”

Still with class about to begin, I had to give up on the olives and found others I liked tucked away in the fridge.  My cooks took a shot at finding the elusive quart container, after my failed attempt.  It HAD to be there.

They emptied the entire refrigerator, and only after beginning to replace the containers they had removed, had they found the olives we were looking for.  They were in the same place I had put them, but I had overlooked them at each pass.  Instead of being labeled “olives,” you see, they were marked “chicken,” a leftover label from a batch of stock.

This reminded me of the pitfalls of mislabeling and, as important, the virtues of labeling correctly.  Just as a lazily and inadvertently mis-labeled container can blind us to what our eyes could otherwise clearly see, so an appropriately labeled container will sharply direct our attention, focus our gaze.  I might think I know what’s in my refrigerator, but I still like having things announce themselves, scream to me “Over here!  Would you like to play?”

A well mise’d refrigerator (where, in part, some things are labeled) can even cue us to dishes before we know how to make them.  If I see a container called, “farro” and one named “braised fennel” and a third, “diced celery,” I might immediately imagine steps to bring them all together on the plate. That is easier than sifting through a bunch of unmarked containers, wondering for a moment, what I might do “with all this food.”  So, at the very least, labels remind us of what we have to work with, so we don’t have to inventory our options each time anew.

A quick word about types of labels to use.  Restaurants prefer masking tape.  It’s cheap and takes Sharpie ink well.  At home, I’ve moved onto to removable labels, the kind you put on file folders.  They too lack country kitchen kitsch, and are bright white and easy to read.