by LYDIA SHELL
“The condiment king,” I used to call him, believing the fixation was solidly “his problem” and not mine. It wasn’t, of course. It was folie au deux, a madness shared by two. No matter how poor my husband and I were, each trip to the grocery store included the addition of at least one exotic relish, mustard or marinade to our otherwise perpetually understocked shopping cart.
I suppose we hoped the unfamiliar spices and flavors would mask our disappointment that we weren’t the adventurous Gatsby-esque couple we’d assumed we’d be when we got married. Instead, my husband worked graveyard at 7-11 and I did data entry at H&R Block to pay the rent on our Navajo White-walled one bedroom apartment. We were boring and broke, but we were alive — the tingle on our tongues as we tasted the newest addition proved it.
If there is a magic about condiments, part of it might be that they seem to last forever. When you’re poor, this makes them a good investment. Salaries and circumstances may fluctuate wildly. Dinner may go from filet mignon to Hamburger Helper in the time it takes to say “downsizing,” but those stalwart bottles hold their own — a reliable “for better or for worse” in a new marriage built on a cracked foundation.
Within a few years, even the condiments couldn’t work their magic anymore and the “worse” got the best of the “better.” My husband and I divided up the grudges and the Madonna albums and went our separate ways. And since he was headed to law school and a tiny dorm refrigerator, the condiments stayed with me.
I had assumed the collecting of condiments was unique to our marriage, but the gaggle of bottles and jars that filled the door of the refrigerator was added to by my next eventual ex, whose tastes leaned more toward feisty BBQ sauces and hot pepper oils than the delicate California-style marinades that my first ex had favored. The one after that had a particular thing for Asian marinades and the one after that was a ketchup kind of guy who, unsurprisingly in retrospect, didn’t stay long.
With each relationship, the man went, the condiments stayed, and over the years, my refrigerator door gradually became a reliquary of my romantic past.
Current partners didn’t seem to mind these fragments of former relationships. Old photographs, borrowed sweatshirts, snippets of reminisce dropped in conversation were usually off limits and uncomfortable to the man of the moment, but that same man seemed to have no trouble biting into a burger seasoned with a prior flame’s favorite Tabasco sauce as I sat across from him and flushed with the memory of a sultry BBQ a deux.
I’ve been single for awhile now, and in the past few years, I’ve embarked on several picture-burning, Goodwill-giving, lingerie-purging exorcisms of my romantic past. After the last break up, I packed everything in a box, including the towels we’d bought for our beach weekend that never happened and the Blue Star medicated ointment we’d bought when our cat got ringworm (yes, I kept the cat. of course I kept the cat. geesh.), and mailed it all back to him with a note that good taste and editorial discretion prevents me from reproducing here. But even in my urge to free myself of every last trace of the last Mr. Wrong, I never once considered mailing back his precious mustard collection which still snuggles cosily in the fridge we once shared.
I kept the condiments, but I didn’t use them. Living alone for me meant that for the most part, the collection was ignored. Adding actual flavor to my food seemed an unnecessary indulgence if I was the only one eating it.
But after years of choking down frozen entrees on the grounds that “cooking for one is too expensive and too much trouble,” I’m rediscovering the joys of preparing my own food from scratch. And those old condiments that have kept vigil all these years in the refrigerator door have sprung to life again, the rows of bottles and jars like fans in the cheap seats cheering me on as I struggle to create a life on my own.
Last night, I made a braised chicken breast with a marinade that combined my recent ex’s favorite “Bumpy Beer” mustard, a prior ex’s lemon vinaigrette and the sweet avocado honey that I bought for myself at Trader Joe’s. Tasting it, I was struck by the thought that the food sustaining me now was a riotous mix of every relationship that I’ve ever had. Somewhere in the blend of spices and textures of my past, I was learning to take the best of each of my experiences and combine them to create the flavors of a life uniquely my own.
Long live the condiment queen.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Lydia Shell is a writer, artist and devoted foodie living happily in Topanga Canyon with her dog, her cat, her condiments and herself.
Photo © 2007 by Rosebud