4/12/2010

When I am King: Buy the By


When I am King...

“Best by” dates will become more realistic.

Recently, I listened again to Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about the expiration date on milk cartons. Unlike milk, that routine doesn’t get old and curdled.

I was reminded of the time that I first noticed the “Best by” date on food products. I was about eight years old, and I noticed a stamp on the Grape Nuts box that said “Best” and then a date that was some seven months in the future.

I thought that seemed kind of strange: what would make a cereal better if used on that date? But being the curious, and apparently stupid, child I was, I had to find out. So I stashed the Grape Nuts way in the back of the pantry, so that nobody would find them between now and that magical date in the future when the cereal would suddenly become more tasty.

I guess I learned the meaning of the word “by” in those seven months, because the next time I took the cereal out, I realized that it meant that it would taste better before that date, signified by the word “by” in the phrase “Best by.” Like the child in Joyce’s Araby, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, except for me the driver was illiteracy. And my stomach burned with anguish and anger.

I finished the Grape Nuts immediately, anxious to avoid letting even more time pass and making the cereal taste worse, although it’s not obvious how that could happen with a food apparently made from wood chips and gravel.

There’s a basic problem here that’s not solved by that helpful “Best by” date: the products do not, in fact, stay in some holding pattern of goodness until that date and then suddenly fall off the Cliff of Yuck. Instead, they start at some mediocre level and get progressively worse as time, staleness, and insects eat into them. That date is nothing more than a point in time when the company lawyers have decided that the potential of food-decay-related illness lawsuits outweigh the corporate benefits of customers overbuying the product and storing it on their pantry shelves. Cereal is not fine wine: you should eat the stuff as soon as you buy it if you want it to be as fresh as possible. Anytime after that, it’s just worse.

Besides, the current “Best by” approach confuses kids. Or at least it confused me. And I’m pretty sure kids these days are dumber, at least based on their spelling over IM and SMS. (That’s my token “grumpy old man” comment – I need to do that to maintain the kind of dignity that Kingship requires).

When I am King, the “Best by” paradigm will shift and we will adopt a simpler approach: all foods will be stamped with the phrase, “Worse after” plus the date that the product is actually made. We don’t want to know when the lawyers would like us to stop eating it; we want to know how long ago the stuff came off of the assembly line. Then we can decide where the hunger-versus-staleness balance lies.

Oh, and by the way: Grape Nuts after seven months? Tasted about the same. That’s the advantage to food products made from inedible substances. But that’s the subject of another blog.
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