The other evening, my husband and I were putting away groceries. When we do this, there’s always a small stack of HABA items (Health And Beauty A- what does the second A stand for, grocers of the world? Anyway…) I trotted off to our bathroom to settle in these items: a deodorant, my husband’s shampoo, eye makeup remover towelettes, a new blush.
Except for the blush, none of these items were going to be used any time soon. They went into the plastic bucket under the sink that holds the extras. I came out, pleased with myself. “We have at least two of everything,” I said in a calm and happy voice. He looked a bit puzzled. “Extras,” I said. “We have extras of everything under the bathroom sink.”
You have to have extras, in order to have enough.
I was introduced to the concept of extras in my teen years. In my own home, we only ever had just enough, and sometimes not even that. There was usually more month than money in our household of six people. That seemed normal to me. But when I was fourteen, I had a boyfriend. I spent enough time at his house to get a closer look at how it was in someone else’s home. And it was so different there.
They had extras.
For one thing, they had a pantry. A full pantry. There was enough food in there to last his family of six for at least three months, maybe more. I was familiar with some of the contents, like commercially canned fruit, fruit cocktail, corn, peas, beans and the like. We bought those, too, but just enough for the week, and rarely fruit unless Mom was making her fruit salad for a special occasion. This pantry held at least twenty cans of fruit.
I was shocked to see how much canned protein was in there; Spam, yes we ate that too, and tuna, yes, we always had tuna, it was the one fish my mom would eat. But there were clams, oysters, and many cans of something I’d always been curious about called “Underwood Deviled Ham.” Do you remember those little paper-wrapped cans? We’d never tried this luxurious looking little delicacy.
There was also a can that held an entire cooked chicken. It couldn’t have been a very large chicken, but just the same, this can (about the size of a big chili can) purported to have a whole chicken in there. I was intrigued and repelled in equal measure.
The shelves held an array of soups, and not just the cooking soups stockpiled by Midwesterners (Campbell’s Cream of Whatever, I’m looking at you). There were all the lunch soups in there, and varieties of crackers we never had at our house. Saltines, sure, but Club crackers and oyster crackers and breadsticks and Rye Crisps, whatever those were.
There were olives and martini onions, pimientos and pickles. I’m sure there was canned chili, which my family liked but never ate, and Chef Boyardee. There was never any of that at our house. I remember opening, heating, tasting, and dumping some Spaghettios into their turquoise-colored kitchen sink.
I just didn’t get it.
Elegant fixings and luxury items aside, there was a distinct bomb-shelter quality to this stockpile of supplies. There was such a bounty that when a group of us decided to take a weekend car trip to Lewiston, Idaho for the drag races, the boyfriend offered up the pantry contents to his less fortunate friends. They came over and loaded up bags of canned goods to eat for the weekend. If you’re wondering how he managed this, his parents were out of town. When they returned, they probably chalked up the dent in the stockpile to their teenage son’s appetite.
I wanted to interrogate this pantry, to understand the why of it, and more importantly, the how of it. How did a family of six accumulate that much food?
I’m sure they ate a lot. They had to, because there were four boys in that family, four tawny-skinned boys with wiry hair, and all of them were muscular and skinny and in constant motion with skiing and paper routes and hiking and just being flappy and fidgety because they were all a little autistic.
How was it that they hadn’t eaten up all this food? At my house we were a rather torpid and lumpen bunch by comparison, and we’d have cleaned that pantry out in a month.
Except for the Chef Boyardee.
But wait! There’s more!
I think toiletries were even more of an issue in my house than food. You name it, if it was in the bathroom, we ran out of it. We ran out of toothpaste on the regular. Hello, baking soda. And my mother was brand specific. We used Colgate toothpaste so if we ran out, we had to wait until we could afford the damn stuff. We even ran out of toilet paper and had to call in its more expensive stand-ins.
At the boyfriend’s house, which had three full bathrooms and one half bath, the cabinet under each bathroom sink was completely stuffed with a jumble of every soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo under the sun. Boxes and cans and bottles, all in a jumble, willy nilly.
There was barely any room for the multiple packages of TP. You’d look under there and find Mitchum and Arrid and Dial Roll-on and Right Guard spray, and Head and Shoulders and Prell and Breck and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, and Ivory and Dove and Irish Spring and Palmolive and Lifebuoy and Dial, and Colgate and Crest and Close Up and Pepsodent and Gleem and freaking Pearl Drops.
It blew my mind.
Whenever he visited his parent, the boyfriend would assemble a bag of this and bring it back to our apartment. I used it all, but objected to the Mitchum. It really did smell too manly. I decided roll-on deodorants were best, especially Dry Idea, and became a Close Up believer. All of these were brands I first found under the in-laws’ bathroom sinks.
I finally ask the question
I was with this boyfriend for six years, all told, including a year and a half of marriage. My future mother-in-law and I were never what you’d call close, but we did rech enough of a détente that I could ask her about her shopping habits when it came to toiletries. Leaving out the part where her son took home bags full of them, I just sort of, you know, perkily inquired as to how she came to have so many different brands on hand.
She smiled proudly. “When I shop, I always pick up a few of whatever’s on sale, whether we need it or not,” she told me.
That was it. She just walked down the aisle and threw a few of whatever was on sale into her grocery cart. Every week. All year long. And it didn’t bankrupt them.
Again, mind blown.
Now I understand.
All of this is to say, I am now in a similar position. I am no longer eking it out from paycheck to paycheck, but even when I was, my kids always had soap and toothpaste and shampoos of choice and whatever else they needed to be fresh and groomed. The pantry was full enough to make it through a lean month. Maybe two.
Today, there are only two people living in this house, but the pantry is still decently stocked. My husband does a pantry patrol to make sure the foodstuffs he requires, like Fritos, are at acceptable levels. He monitors the jars of spaghetti sauce very carefully. I don’t make spaghetti sauce-based things very often, but rest assured, I always have six jars in there, waiting to be called into marinara action.
We could live out of the pantry for a while, but probably not for a year, as I have no whole canned chickens. Not even one. Pantry protein is restricted to canned tuna. I pay close attention to food expiration dates. If I don’t, my microbiologist best friend will shame me (she’s only done that once, when I had the entire contents of the overstocked pantry spread out on the counters while battling ants, but once was enough). I’ll keep something a month after it expires, but not a year. A pantry is both a comfort and a responsibility.
I hate food waste, so every few months, I go on a tear and refuse to buy food until we’ve “eaten through” the pantry and freezer. It’s all very fine to feel stocked up and safe, but it is not my intention to curate a food museum. I don’t need to stockpile. If there’s a nuclear war I hope to go in the first strike, so I’m not prepping for that. But I want to have…enough.
Toiletries are where I can go a little overboard. I know which things I like and need, and I’ll buy them in almost any brand with a few exceptions. Under my three bathroom sinks, you won’t find mountains of extra stuff, but you will find at least two of everything I use on the daily. Maybe more, if I find a good deal or get paranoid, which I am right now about mint-flavored antacids. I can’t have too many bottles of mint-flavored antacids. For the last year or more, they’ve been hard to find, and I don’t think I am the problem. One lady in Oregon can’t create a shortage, can she?
Likewise with Cetaphil face wash. Did you know there was a Cetaphil face was shortage in 2020? Well, I knew, and now there are probably too many bottles of that under one or the other sink. But I’ll use them. Eventually. I will use it all up.
There is always enough. There are always extras.