By Lindsay Crudele -
Green peas. Salted peanuts. Cherries, warm in my backpack, plucked from the mesh, pits popped through the mouth of an empty water bottle. Potato chips left open at the beach long enough to take on a little sand, grit in my teeth.
I was trying to remember them as quickly as I could before I forgot. My cousin on the other coast said that when it started, nobody felt much of a difference, until one day when she realized she couldn’t remember what chocolate tasted like.
Saltine crackers made soft in hot broth. Olives from the can, slipped over fingertips that I said look like soldiers. Back then, I'd never seen a soldier. Pepperoni slices pilfered from pizza toppings lined up on the counter. Kiwi fruit, the black seeds popping between my teeth like caviar, their gemmy sweet-acid flesh culling up the saliva beneath my tongue. My grandmother’s tiny apartment kitchen fogging up as she boiled the pasta water. My brother’s sleeves rolled up, his wrists slicked with grease, as he excavated the legs from a silver-plattered turkey.
We had a little time to prepare before the last of the old food dwindled and disappeared. We were free to throw away or use up any last ingredients that we had on hand. I lived alone, with a small fridge, and there usually wasn’t much around. I stopped by the store on the way home for ingredients a few days a week.
“The sooner we get used to it, the sooner we can move on with our lives,” my mother said. I tried to imagine all music with only five notes, or books written with the same twenty words.
Everyone who talked like that probably had a stockpile in their basement, like during the Cold War. Everyone was hoarding. In the first month, black market vendors sprung up around town selling fresh fruit and meat at extortive prices, dusted and polished from the trash pile.
Many people were excited about the new system, who even believed in the marketing, and for the first few weeks, preemptively tossed their soon-to-expire foods. Simple nutrition. Reclaim your time. It didn’t matter that the patents for what the farms grew were no longer available. There were direct-to-consumer savings.
Ellery, which sounds just like celery, crisp and fibrous, lived down the hall, and told me I should join her for some dumpster diving while the getting was still good.
“This isn’t like you remember. They’re throwing away the good stuff. Not even spoiled. It’s a waste. It’s practically your duty.”
I took a walk around the neighborhood one afternoon not too long after the switch. “Come back soon!” said a poster taped to the window of the corner store, next to another that read, “NooDollars accepted here!”
My stomach grumbled as I imagined the breakfast sandwich I might have ordered, not too long ago. A griddled English muffin, two fried eggs, melted cheese and a slice of bacon, extra fried onions. Hot coffee, milk and a little sugar, in a tall paper cup. I would drink it on the stoop next door before it had time to cool while I watched the kids play basketball across the street. I heard the kitchen would be converted into a shipping counter for those who preferred not to pick up their own supply at the depot downtown.
I had passed on scavenging with Ellery, but as I stood on the curb, wondering where I could still get a cup of coffee, I saw the dumpster behind the shop. It was piled high with boxes that appeared to be full of food. Cabbages, shrink-wrapped packages of hot dogs, overripe bananas. I could smell the soft rot, the wax coating the fruit, the sweet funk of groceries all mixed together, alight in my nostrils.
A stock boy burst from a side door in the back alley, who noticed me staring. “We can’t sell them anymore.” He tossed some flattened boxes against the dumpster and disappeared back into the building.
I waited a moment, but he didn’t return. I stepped closer and the scent hummed louder, like cicadas. A roast, swaddled in plastic and left in the trash like a body at a crime scene, was wedged into a corner of the pile. If not me, who? I snatched it and shoved it into my shoulder bag, wiping a mysterious slick off my fingers and onto my coat.
A few weeks later, Ellery slipped a note under my door.
“Come over for a surprise tonight.”
She ushered me in and made me promise not to tell what she was about to show me. I opened my mouth to ask and she shushed me. She shoved aside the cat tree and unscrewed a panel in the wall.
“You didn’t see this, but I have some chocolate. Have a piece.”
She unwrapped a small plank from the foil and snapped me off a corner. We ate it slowly and quietly, nibbling between the wrappers like a taco. Chocolate tasted like chocolate, but also like a constellation of other things: notes of raspberry, violets and coffee ringing in my mouth. Ellery rewrapped the remainder of the bar before slipping it back into the safe.
I crinkled my wrapper and walked toward the trash, but Ellery stopped me.
“Not in the garbage! Mrs. Spicer told me she heard there have been break-ins.”
She swiped the wrapper from me.
“I heard there is some kind of secret supper club in the west end,” she said. “They’re pooling their leftovers and doing whole dinner parties.”
What I really craved: spaghetti rings from a can with tiny meatballs after my sister and I built a snow fort sometime in the second grade. Ramen from the package after we finished ice skating, which I thought was positively royal back then, although it was really because we were broke that winter. I could really go for a hot dog, a little overdone, yellow mustard, diced onion, celery salt on a soft bun.
I ran the roast under some tap water to clear off the dumpster grime, and then pried open the plastic wrapper. The sell-by date was a few days away, the meat blushing pink, and its raw, metallic scent plumed from the open package. With a sharp knife, I carved the chunk into smaller pieces, wrapping each one individually and splitting them between the fridge and freezer for longevity.
For breakfast, I pried loose a bag of NooBerries from the freezer chest. I used a butter knife to stab a handful through the plastic, and I tossed them onto a plate to defrost. They tumbled into a loose pyramid, the shape and hue of art class charcoals.
“What did you just say?” Ellery-like-celery asked while I was visiting her apartment one day.
She caught me muttering to myself. I had been practicing my memories: strawberries, crushed garlic, salt and pepper chicken, ginger shrimp.
“I was thinking you should stop trying to remember every single flavor,” she said. “Don’t you think it would be easier? On yourself?”
“It might not be like this forever,” I said.
“Remember when I first started eating all that fake meat? After a while, I was like, I’m pretty sure this is what chicken tastes like, and it wasn’t so bad.”
“That’s different,” I said. “My mom didn’t make me Quorn.”
“And I’ve lost at least twenty pounds since we started eating this way,” she said. “Haven’t you?”
My supermarket appointment had me queued up for just after noon. I had more time now that browsing was out of the question.
Stacks of wax-rimmed brie and craggy wedges of Parmesan, bins of pickled capers in brine, and sweet-tart persimmon-red peppers. The toasted perfume of the sliced bread aisle: whole grain, half-wheat, plain white, and the cornmeal toaster cakes that look like the top of a muffin. Tubs of cream and yogurt; galleries of eggs. The gentle encouragement of the vegetable mister over piles of roots and ruffled greens. There were once a lot of decisions to make.
In ten minutes, I loaded the cases into the trunk of my car: blue NooDew for drinking, and four square nutrient varieties, all color-coded: green NooLeaves, blue NooBerries, brown NooLoaf and red NooTein, a type of fermented synthetic poultry.
Ellery unplugged her fridge and was using it to stack books and trinkets. She said she liked having to dust less.
Things that crunch. Things you can mash against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Peppers that burn. Peppers that numb. Dumplings you pop in whole which unload all their juices at once. Hot fat and cold crisp, separate and at the same time. Things that bleed.
I needed to hide the aroma of the cooking. Most people didn’t bother to use their ovens anymore, since baking or roasting NooFood generally made it taste worse, not better. Instructions on the side of the NooFood cases recommended slowly reheating the packets in a water bath. I rolled up some towels and lined the door jam. Then I added more along the windowsill, in case the scent began to curl out and into Mrs. Spicer’s apartment, who was always looking for someone else’s business to mind.
For the first meal, I browned the meat in a hot cast-iron pan, which I dug out from deep within a dusty cabinet. After building a dark, fatty crust on the meat, I slid it into the oven to barely warm it through, and I placed the entire hunk onto a plate. The meat released a bloody rivulet, and when I carved it in half, its center was translucent as a plum. I shaved against the grain, cracking through its glistening crust and peeling down petals of meat, which I laid on my tongue to let melt before sinking in with my teeth. I rolled the fat around in my mouth and sucked the juices, chewing every shred of muscle, gristle and tissue. I ate it slowly that way, for a long time. It must have been two hours of eating.
“I’m serious - you look amazing,” said Ellery. “After months of this, I never thought I’d really get used to it. How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing OK.”
“The only thing with me is that I think my hair might be getting a little thinner. Can you tell?” she asked.
Ellery looked, in truth, a little translucent, her cheekbones casting a darker shadow than I remembered. Her eyes were a bit sunken, and below them, her complexion gray, like overcooked meat.
I wanted to change the subject.
“Your color is so good,” she said. “Really good. Honestly everyone looks so gaunt. We should get one of those seasonal depression lamps. I’ve been so tired.”
I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment and sit down to eat again, carving the rare meat thin and fanning the slices out on my plate.
“What are you doing for vitamins?” she asked, looking a little despaired.
“Nothing, really. I try to get a little sun,” I said.
“Do you think my gums look like they’re receding?” she asked, grimacing at me so I could inspect.
I wanted to share the meat with Ellery. I really did. She gave me chocolate. Why shouldn’t I give her meat? But she talked so much. Maybe she would tell Mrs. Spicer. Who knows? Hungry people do desperate things.
We used to keep leftovers for four or five days, not longer than a week. We didn’t worry about this problem much anymore given the shelf life of NooTein.
I was down to my final package of real meat. I split it in two, and then two again, but the morsels were barely larger than bite-sized. I had to supplement my meals with NooBerries, or my stomach growling would keep me up all night.
What was the shelf life of cooked meat? Three days? It had been at least seven. A ripple of gray grime rimmed the edge of the bowl’s insides, and a new, acrid scent laced the beef’s aroma, sulfuric and sour. I transferred it from the pan into a deeper pot, which I filled with water, and boiled into something like a stew. I let the water churn for a few extra minutes, to be safe. I shredded the meat with my fork, and I drank up the broth. I licked the bowl clean.
I opened the fridge and an anemic glow painted the room from the depths of its chambers. I stared down into my gleaming bowl. The last of the old meat began to roil in my bowels.
Lindsay Crudele lives in Boston, where she writes stories and poems. Her writing has appeared in Maudlin House, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Temz Review, Collusion Books/845 Press, WBUR, and the Boston Globe, and earned a James Beard Award for public radio. She has achieved her childhood goal of acquiring a small menagerie such as worth noting in a writer's bio. Find her at lindsaycrudele.com and on Twitter at @thelindsayist.