Containers and Surprises

Growing up, I opened enough tubs of butter only to find three-week-old green beans that I developed serious trust issues.

I recently confronted these past traumas when Carla and I spent the day in her hometown of Sandersville cleaning out her mother’s refrigerators and freezers in preparation for selling her house. Most of my experience has been with Country Crock containers, but in this case, it was Cool Whip.

Two Cool Whip containers, one closed and one open to reveal turnip greenss

Frosty Cool Whip or frozen turnip greens? You don’t know until you open it.

What I think throws people about this practice is the deception. Here you have a nice, hot biscuit waiting to be buttered, and you crack open the Country Crock only to find creamed corn. I think it’s a little worse with Cool Whip. In that case you might have a slice of pecan pie waiting for its mandatory dollop of whipped topping, but instead you get turnip greens.

Lord knows I heard my father rail against this practice plenty of times in my youth. I don’t think he minded the frugality of saving the butter tubs. He used plenty of them around his workshop to hold assorted nuts, bolts and screws. He actually preferred baby food jars, though, because you could readily identify the contents. I think what offended him more about my mom’s practice was the age of the contents of the butter dishes. From years of scientific observation, I can authoritatively state that putting leftovers in butter or whipped topping containers does not give it unnaturally long life. Given enough time it will molder and rot just the same as if it were sealed in Tupperware.

That’s the chief problem of re-purposing containers. You don’t know what’s inside. Of course, a Sharpie can rectify that problem. I would recommend keeping one in your kitchen junk drawer.

No Southerner with any sense would criticize the resourcefulness of reusing containers. It is the height of wastefulness to throw out all that plastic when it can be put to good use holding leftover butter beans, turnip greens or creamed corn. In our house, we don’t re-use such containers. In the New South, we put them in the bin and let the waste management company recycle them.

After my weekend of examining the contents of plastic food containers, I have to wonder if we’re missing out. Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates, but he could have just as easily said, “Life is like a container of Cool Whip in Mama’s freezer — you never know what you’re gonna get.”

We have many containers in our lives, and their contents rarely match the label. “Successful career” is actually filled with stress and disappointment. In reality, “Happy marriage” contains resentment and conflict. “Well-behaved child” is instead loaded with depression and anxiety. We don’t write with Sharpie what our containers hold, and we don’t tend to let people know what’s really going on in the containers of our lives.

These days I am rarely surprised by the contents of my plastic containers, and my trust issues have faded along with the memories of moldy English peas. But by recycling my containers rather than reusing them, I am letting go of the element of surprise. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Maybe my life needs a few surprises.

Perhaps I’ll hide the next batch of leftover Brussels sprouts in a gelato jar. That should introduce some unpredictability. And when a member of my family finds it, they’ll learn a valuable lesson about judging the contents by the container.

OK, it’s your turn. I know you have similar stories. What’s the weirdest thing you found in a deceptive dish in your parents’ or grandparents’ refrigerator or freezer? Leave a comment and share your story. Consider it therapy for your trust issues. I promise it will help.

8 thoughts on “Containers and Surprises

  1. Will do! She’s doing well. The weekend before the governor’s shelter-in-place order took effect, she moved into an apartment at an independent senior living facility five minutes from us. Thanks for checking on her. Hope you are well!

  2. Lance, after my mother died we found a well stocked pantry of country crock containers. At first thought, I believed this was a result of the depression. However, I am thinking it is genetics since I have an entire cabinet devoted to plastic containers – with and without matching lids. I loved the essay. Keep writing from the heart.

  3. In my defense, I now have freezer tape and a Sharpie to label food I put in the freezer. Dad has also purchased 2 sets of Lock n Lock containers. 😊

  4. Great read. It brings back good memories while spurring introspection. Tonya’s mother still repurposes many containers. Her favorite is ziploc bags. At least you can see the contents. Thanks Lance.

  5. Mike’s mother was raised by a single mother in the Ozark Mountains. The contents of her refrigerator were not only camouflaged but health hazzards. I didn’t know her long before the accident that left her mostly paralyzed but I witnessed years of fear and depression. I can’t even imagine all the contents of the containers in her mind .

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