I'm not sure how many shelves of the fridge door you devote to condiments. I technically reserve two and a half — though of course I don't count the rogue jars and bottles I cram behind the yogurt and tofu.
My condiment hoard has slowly spread with time, like any collector's obsession deepens with each coveted new acquisition. After all, one must first dip a toe in the wide world of artisanal mustards before embracing the obvious value of owning eight different kinds ranging from sinus-clearing to curried to honeyed, and coarse to silky smooth.
And so it's gone with almost every condiment, except for mayonnaise (Hellman's for life, unless I'm south of the Mason Dixon, then Duke's) and ketchup (Heinz — Hunt's when desperate — or nothing.) The hot sauces have inevitably multiplied because grilled cheese called for vinegary-hot dribbles, while rice and beans preferred smokey heat; chicken shawarma cried out for sweet Sriracha, and rice noodles with shrimp and veggies begged for chili-garlic sauce. A reasonable umami section of miso, fish sauce, kimchi and worcestershire likewise ballooned out of control once the collector sampled her first barrel-aged soy, and so on and so forth through chili oils and pastes, relishes, pickled peppers and jams.
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Knowing all this, you can imagine that moving some 1,500 miles from Chicago to New Mexico with a single cooler's worth of space presented a problem when the time came to perform the final fridge cleanout. How does one cram the time capsule of an entire seasoning and saucing life into a 32-quart Igloo?
We'd spent the final weeks before moving working our way through the big-brand standbys, knowing they'd be easy enough to replace. I left just enough Hellman's in the jar — which I scooped into a smaller plastic container — for roadtrip ham and cheese sandwiches. From there, the uneasy game of condiment Tetris began. We'd have to bring at least two jars of giardiniera — Chicago's quintessential tangy, crunchy condiment — one mild, coarse and oily, the other a finer-diced hot relish. I nestled them beside a skinny bottle of barrel-aged hot sauce and the vinegared cherry tomato jewels I'd taken to smearing on grilled bread. Room grew particularly scarce once the fancy mustards and artisanal kimchi went in.
"Yes, I know we can buy fish sauce online," I argued with myself, quarter-full bottle in hand. But I deem it all but criminal to so glibly toss out any amount of the little black dress of umami. Likewise for the chili crisp, which arguably doesn't require refrigeration, but we fretted over temperature swings on the three-day drive. "Should I sacrifice the tamari then? Or the last four sport peppers? But that's just enough for two Chicago-style hot dogs!"
It's an unexpectedly sentimental exercise to take stock of how you bedazzle, spice, umami and sweeten your eating life — almost like paging through old photo albums. As I sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by assorted bottles and jars, some hard to open and sticky from use, I thought about how I've changed and stayed the same as a cook — ever seeking new avenues to the vinegary and savory. How my husband and I can never get enough variations on fiery heat — even if they don't always love us back.
Emotion won out over rationality every time, but I didn't care. Some condiments had to form the essential flavoring foundations of our weekly cooking repertoire as we settled into our new life. Others bore the considerable burden of being the last threads connecting us to our old life, for however long they lasted. After all, condiments are forms of self-expression, aren't they? A spoonful of chili crisp shines up green beans like glossy, crunchy jewelry, telling the eater that the maker likes a little tingly heat and salty crunch in their life.
Hours later and with no shortage of theatrics, I determined that we had a satisfactory representation of home and ourselves in that tightly packed cooler. They made it mostly unscathed until we climbed to 8,000-feet. elevation somewhere outside Santa Fe. A low hiss and rush of cabbagey funk in the air told us the kimchi had bubbled over.
When we finally moved into our new house last winter, I was delighted by the chance to rebuild my condiment hoard more or less from the ground up. "Maybe I'll curate it more thoughtfully this time," I told myself. Of course, that was until I discovered jalapeño mustard, Korean Doenjang and nopales en escabeche (essentially borderlands giardiniera — trust me). Suffice to say, I've long since broached the third shelf.