When I met my Swedish ex in Ireland, I noticed something odd about her. She always carefully checked the labels and dates on food in the shop. I thought it was just a cute quirk, as I had rarely given those little dates much thought myself. If food smelled good, it was good; if it smelled funny, or had blue fluffy stuff on it, then it was bad.
But when I moved to Sweden, I was in for a shock – the entire country did the same. Swarms of grown-ups would wander around the shops, peering at the best-before dates and doing feverish calculations in their heads before buying anything. If I came home with something that was due to go “out” in a few days, then I was in bad domestic trouble. And any produce, even frozen or unopened, that had passed this mystical date would be chucked out as if it were coated in arsenic.
Stories about best-before hysteria are numerous over here, and I will tell only two of them:
1) Once my ex threw out salt—salt!!—that had gone past its best-before date. Now salt has been used in every culture for centuries to preserve food – conclusion, salt does not go off. But this did not stop her from throwing it out and starting a fight with me about it.
2) A friend of a friend—let us call him Larry—was making a cup of tea before he went out on the town. He checked the date on the milk, saw there was one day left, and took some milk. He came home a few hours later and made some more tea. But now the milk had gone off, as it was the next day, and Larry refused to drink it – the exact same milk he had used six hours earlier. He poured it down the sink, terrified of diseases, only hours after having had his tongue in the mouth of 3 or 4 strange girls, carrying probably more bacteria than live in his entire apartment.
These stories are not the exception – they are the rule in this peculiar country. I was in a shop that sells English stuff in Stockholm (called, usefully enough, the English Shop) a few days ago and noticed they were giving away crisps. I asked why, and the lady working there told me they had “gone out” and, even when they were free, the Swedes would not touch them. Now, show me any other country in the world where people will not take free stuff because of a little date printed on the packet.
Let us look at the phrase “best before” – or “bäst före” in Swedish. It implies that the product is BEST before the given date. It will probably be quite fine AFTER the date also, but it is 100% guaranteed to be BEST before it. Hence the words BEST BEFORE. It is not the “use by” date or the “shit after” date or the “throw me out please” date or the “warning! Deadly poison!” date – it is the BEST BEFORE date. And much more important than this magical date is the way in which the article has been stored both by you and in the shop: the outside temperature; the decade in which your fridge was installed; and when you actually opened the box.
I have gone blue in the face arguing this with Swedes, and now go out of my way to eat “old” food just to piss them off and show them that I will not die. Week-old milk, moldy bread, soup from the nineties – bring it on, baby!
And finally, just for the Swedes, here is how you use your enormous brain and fantastically complicated senses, evolved over millions of years, to determine if something if “good”, instead of using a little magic printed number on a box. Let us take milk as an example:
- Shake it.
- Look at it.
- Smell it.
- Taste it.
With these basic steps, you can determine if the milk (and most other things) really is “bad” and thereby save yourself a possible heart attack from too much pointless worry. Try it, and feel alive for the very first time.
/ paddy (best before 2053)