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Enduring a 100-degree day in the kitchen


One fateful summer day in the early ‘70s, I was faced with a challenge that ranked way up there with an “I Love Lucy” sitcom.

In the garage, my husband, Don, discovered a sticky pink trail inching across the floor from our 19-cubic foot upright freezer as he got into his car one hot, humid morning on his way to work.

In the freezer we found a melted box of cherry popsicles. The freezer door had been slightly ajar overnight. The entire contents were in a state of slow thaw. Fortunately it happened on my day off. In spite of my sluggish “I’m not a morning person” attention deficit condition, I rallied the kids to help assess what was needed to salvage several hundred dollars of thawing frozen food.

Fortunately or unfortunately (I wasn’t sure at that moment), our freezer was kept full. But with a typical summer overnight temperature around 75+ degrees, a crippling toll on the family food budget was on the line with all that thawing food.

What to do? Around 9 a.m. I figured neighbors would be up, so our four kids were sent out to scavenge extra aluminum foil, wax paper and onions so I could salvage as much meat as possible by cooking and refreezing.

The irony of the timing of this mini-catastrophe was that I had just written a food column about cooking large batches of foods early in the day, particularly those that would be suitable for hearty salads or picnics. That assumed local kitchens then would not have to be used later in the heat of the day, when temperatures were regularly in the 90s or above and humidity rarely dropped below 80 percent day or night. My column had been triggered by a press release from the Rochester-based French’s mustard folks, who submitted a number of their recipes for the summer, all featuring their mustards.

They say that timing is everything. I was about to find out how true that is. Soon every flat surface in the kitchen and adjacent family room was full of food in one state or another — half frozen, quarter frozen, barely frozen or thawed. Our family room was dominated by a standard-size pool table that our daughter, Andi, had requested for her 16th birthday. Fortunately it had a ping pong table top, and we used every inch of it that day.

Around 2 o’clock that afternoon my editor, Dick, called from the paper with a question about the upcoming Thursday edition.

“I’m too busy to talk right now, but I’ll call before 5 if I’ve finished with this culinary fiasco,” I replied breathlessly. With no further comment I hung up and went back to the recipes taped on the front of every kitchen cabinet.

I used every pot, pan, skillet and baking dish that I could find while frying and baking and wishing I had four more hands, an extra stove and air conditioning. Sweat dribbled down my brow. The kitchen wall thermometer indicated more than 100 degrees at the time. I didn’t call Dick back.

When the cooking was finally finished, the kitchen refrigerator was emptied of all non-perishable items so we could chill the wrapped, hot, cooked foods before re-freezing.

Meanwhile the freezer was washed and dried inside and out and dialed down to its lowest setting. We had to wait for the interior to reach zero before we could reload it.

Fortunately I had called the New York State Department of Agriculture the week before to verify safety issues for the food article I was writing. Food safety was paramount in the current summer heat wave. And yes, thawed uncooked food, with the exception of fish and shellfish, could be thoroughly cooked and refrozen as long as a few ice crystals were still visible as it was thawing.

When all was cooked and done, 25 pounds or so of ground beef, steaks, a turkey, several large packages of chicken, spare ribs, pork chops, roasts and oodles of vegetables and fruit had been steamed, boiled, fried, braised, baked or broiled, then wrapped, chilled, labeled and returned to a spanking clean, very cold freezer.

I can laugh about it now. But that day, other than some members of the paper disbelieving my impossible achievement in the heat of the day, I established a reputation of what they’d now call culinary “street cred.” (I never want to run a restaurant!)

Our total loss was about five pounds of fish and shrimp, two half gallons of ice cream and several boxes of Popsicles. I owed neighbors six boxes of foil and wax paper, two rolls of paper toweling and five pounds of onions. We didn’t have to cook for the rest of the summer. No one got sick.

Refrozen foods have limited shelf life so we had to eat, eat, eat that summer. Fewer pots and pans to wash in the evenings were a welcome bonus.

I bet “I Love Lucy” writers couldn’t have done any better than my “Formerly Frozen Freezer Fiasco.” Any takers?

Sylvia Malagamba is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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