Friday, January 20, 2012

No, it Wasn't Ratatouille

Strap on your seatbelts, everyone. Today's post is a long one, has nothing to do with writing, and shouldn't be read while eating.

Thanks to an overpopulation problem of local skunks and an overly inquisitive cat, I found myself with an entire cupboard full of 48-oz cans of store-brand tomato juice. This week I made the one recipe I know that uses tomato juice: SWEET POTATO, PEANUT BUTTER, and CABBAGE STEW.

This stew is tastier than it sounds, and is one of three ways that I will eat sweet potatoes. Not as good as the pie, but darn close.

It is not, however, kid-friendly.

Last Tuesday: Stew Day
While I snarf down a huge bowlful, Kid #1 cries, gags, regurgitates, and cries some more. Kid #2 starts sympathy crying, but then realizes this is his chance to be Golden Child. So he eats every last drop, repeatedly thanking me for our delicious dinner, and casting sly, superior glances at Kid #1. John threatens snot-and-tear-covered Kid #1 with stew for breakfast, and I fill up another bowl because this is comfort food and feeding it to my children stresses me out.

While John coaches Kid #1 through his second bite (“Use your milk! Swallow it fast!”), I clean. Dishes in the dishwasher, a few more by hand, and some stacked in the sink for after the first by-hand batch is dry.

I look at the tomato juice can, which I opened with a church key opener. The recipe used 32 oz from the 48-oz can.

(True story: My novel's MC uses a church-key (punch) opener in a scene. John read it and said, “She only punched one hole.” I gave him a blank look. He said: “It won’t pour with one. You need two.” At 36, with an engineering degree, I’d never figured out the physics of the punch opener. The next time I opened a can of liquid, I couldn’t wait to make TWO holes and see how it worked. This tomato juice was my first opportunity.)
Churchkey, a.k.a. punch opener.
Yes, this is an important detail.

Back to the leftover juice: Should I save it? In what? Freeze it? I don’t drink tomato juice. Pouring it out seems wasteful, but saving it seems like a pain.

Bath and bedtime. I leave the can on the counter to deal with the kids.

Wednesday: Lunch menu? Leftover stew (for me).
I see the can in the morning. Dammit. Can’t save it now. I never finished cleaning the kitchen last night, instead crashing after the kids were in bed. Now we’re late for school, as usual. Then comes errands, and more errands... Home for lunch. Ah, leftovers.

Thursday: More leftovers for me
Chock-full of vitamins. I’m the queen.

The can has become part of the scenery. My eyes work like that. Leave something on a surface for more than 24 hours and it becomes a built-in feature. For instance, don’t all coffee tables come with three remotes, two markers, a cut-up piece of construction paper,and a pile of mail? John’s the same way, which is why I live in constant fear of drop-in friends and/or child protective services.

Friday: I ♥ Leftovers
I can’t believe I haven’t gotten rid of that can yet. But I don’t feel like opening it up and scrubbing it out right now. The juice is dried on by now and I can’t put a dirty can in the recycling. See recycling rules posted to fridge.

More leftovers for lunch. Healthy and delicious and filling, too. Proud of myself.

Saturday: Last day of leftovers...
... As good as the first!

The only thing left from that recipe is this abandoned can. Today I'll deal with it. Really.

Except, somehow, I don’t.

Can? What can?

While I take the kids to a playdate, John gets the rare urge to thoroughly clean the kitchen. The forgotten can magically re-appears in his field of vision.

He doesn’t worry over recycling. A quick rinse will do. John is relaxed about this stuff in a way I am not. I will leave a peanut butter jar in the sink for days until I finally wash it out, because I do not put dirty peanut butter jars in the recycling. I am a rule-follower: No food residue. No cardboard boxes from frozen items. No pizza boxes. John gleefully ignores these city-issued guidelines, while I religiously follow them.

We are two different kinds of messy. He’s nah-its-fine messy. I’m it-has-to-be-perfect-or-don't-do-it messy. John doesn’t really care. I care too much. We end up in the same place.

But enough analysis.

I come home with the kids, an hour to spare before dinner and nary a grocery in the house. “I’m running out for groceries,” I say.

He’s at the sink, scrubbing with uncharacteristic vigor. “Oh. Are you planning to make anything with tomato juice?”

“No, why?”

“No reason. We’re just out, is all. So if you needed some, you’d have to buy more.”

“OUT? There were, like, six cans in there.”

“Yeah, well, the whole batch was bad. I had to get rid of them.”


“I can’t tell you that.”

He’s giving me this look, this mouse trapped in a cage with a weasel look—I know that look because I’ve seen a mouse trapped with a weasel before—and I can tell he really does want to say something but he’s also hoping against all rational hope that I’ll take his word for it and just go shopping.

That is so not happening.

I drop my keys back in the jar by the door. Stare at him. He stares back. I’m assessing him. He’s backing into the corner, the way the mouse does. Eyes wide. The only way a weasel can attack a mouse in that position is head-on. And the weasel doesn’t want to, because he’ll get bitten, but ultimately this game has to end.

Hang up my purse. Hands on my hips. “Spill it. Now.”

He sighs.

The Confession
He rinsed the can. Rinsing it with just the two punch holes was slow, but he didn’t feel like getting out the big can opener. Until the water stopped flowing and he saw something blocking a hole. Something like... FUR.

There was no way around it. He had to open the can all the way.

What he found was the headless, tailless, but still recognizable form of a RAT. Possibly a very large mouse. But most likely a rat.

I’m laughing a little, in a completely insincere way that’s utterly out of my control. “You’re making this up.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Honey,” I say, “this really isn’t funny. Stop joking. I’m begging you.”

“I didn’t want to tell you, but then what if you needed tomato juice? I couldn’t keep the other cans, not after.... I just had to throw it all away.” I see the green undertones in his face.

“But... But I used that to make the stew. We all ate the stew.”

“I know.” He swallows, his Adam’s apple the only movement between us.

“So then it crawled in one of the holes,” I say. My stomach clenches. “A rat came in the house. Did you leave the door open? Someone left the door open.” My eyes are starting to water. I’m getting that trembly lip. “Shit, I’m the worst housekeeper in the world.” Hyperventilation. Dizzy. Need to breathe slowly. Heart hurts.

Rattus norvegicus, or common sewer rat
“No way it crawled in,” he says. “It was only parts... No head or tail. Mostly skin and fur. Had to have been there all along.”

“But we ate the stew.”

“I know.”

“We made the kids eat the stew.”

“I know.”

“Kid #1 cried.”

“I know.”

“I ate leftovers all week.”

Silence. He goes back to scrubbing the sink, powerless to make this better.

I kick off my shoes. “I can’t enter a store right now.” (My mind is flooded with images of rats crawling all over the canned goods section. My semi-dormant rat phobia is  awakening like a great and terrible beast in my psyche.) “I’m going to the bedroom to lie down and cry. Will you order a pizza?”

His shoulders slump. “Yeah,” he says.

They can never, ever know.
(But we can tell copyright-free
kid from Microsoft Images.)
We don’t even have to discuss the fact that the kids can never, ever, ever know about this. We will lose all clean-your-plate credibility if they know we force-fed them rat stew. So it is our secret, our shared burden as parents.

Facebook friends insist we notify the FDA. The tomato juice should be recalled. We have to take the carcass to the store. Someone should be testing it. We have to FOLLOW UP.

The next night, John and I are drowning in guilt. The rat is in the outside garbage now, and tomorrow is trash day. We have agreed that I must never, ever see this bit of flesh because I am not strong enough. Sometimes you just have to accept your limitations. So our next action will be up to John.

I convince him that it's our civic duty to report the rat. He drinks three glasses of wine, dons some latex gloves, and opens up the sealed trash that contained the carcass. He seals it in layers of foil and plastic, then puts it in the freezer.

Neither one of us wants this anywhere near our food. But where else do you store a dead body? It’s Southern California. We can’t rely on outdoor temperatures to keep the thing fresh. It’s in an isolated corner, tucked behind a long-expired bin of blue cornmeal. I have no idea why I ever bought that blue cornmeal, but it will go when the rat goes.

We still haven’t made the call. John doesn’t want to have the rat conversation in his work cubicle. I can’t call because I’m still convinced it's karmically my fault. Plus, the body is not in good shape. John had tossed it on top of uneaten oatmeal, and then had to perform some sort of surgery to separate the “clean” part from the oatmeal-crusted part. I think that may have been where the third glass of wine came in.

At least my husband makes a happy drunk. He was great company when it was done.

Because everyone loves a hopeful ending
Once upon a time, I read seven Black Dagger Brotherhood J.R. Ward romances in the space of a week. John seemed to resent my obsession, saying it portrayed men as an absurdly unrealistic and unhealthy ideal. I figured he was insecure about the ginormous muscled heroes who were all ass-kicking and alpha maleness. I told him I was smart enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality.

And I am. Real-life romance is the guy who will take care of the rat. The guy who won’t let you see it, who really doesn’t want to tell you, who’ll go back into the trash even if he can’t do it sober. The guy who’ll listen to you cry about how this is fate’s punishment for your horrible housekeeping, and hug you and say don’t be silly, and look at our beautiful children, they’re fine. Books and fantasies are fun, but I can’t imagine giving a rat’s ass about a monosyllabic lump of muscle in real life.

Nope. Real world heroes don’t need life-or-death drama to spring to action. A rat in a can of tomato juice will do. And I’m swept off my feet all over again.


  1. OH MY GOD.

    ::dies laughing::

    I'm sorry... I mean, I shouldn't laugh, because if this had happened to me, I would probably never eat tomato sauce again. Or, you know, any other food. This makes the story about a large, mite-covered beetle in my dinner seem completely uninteresting.

    Seriously though, you should call the FDA. Or at least the company. As long as you have rat bits, it should be evidence enough (oatmeal nonwithstanding). Did you keep the can too? They might ask you for the barcode or batch numbers.

    Keep us updated!

  2. I believe John kept the can. In a plastic bag. Somewhere in the garage, maybe. The less I know, the better.

    And a large, mite-covered beetle still sounds pretty horrific! A bug covered in other bugs can really get my gag reflex going.

  3. ew to infinity! I am so sorry and I am telling everyone about your experience.. it's crazy! oh and after seeing the picture of the vermin, made me think of another pun.... The Common Stewer Rat....

  4. I'm with Sabrina. Sorry, but I was laughing, horrified laughing but still laughing. Especially since you forced Kid 1 to eat it. I didn't see it coming.

    But you're right, John is a true hero. :)

    Fictional men make good stories, but I gotta say, I love my real man. Wouldn't want anyone else.

  5. Ew, ew, ew! But I disagree with your statement that your post had nothing to do with writing. I'm definitely going to be thinking about this story the next time I'm creating a romantic hero.

  6. You seriously, really need to call someone. We once found bugs in our spaghetti and called people immdately after we discovered it (our case is actually more common, but yours is way beyond what our issue was and could have had some seriously nasty consequences). My sister is a microbiologist and nearly had a cow reading this story. Seriously - even though the stew is gone and that's all overwith, someone needs to know.

  7. My thoughts: Oh my gosh, Sarah is such a funny writer, I can so relate. Then no, no, no, this story is not going to turn THAT direction. Agh,
    I'm going to be sick!

    Sarah, that was a brilliantly written, utterly horrible experience. Tell someone!

    I'm off to throw out anything tomato related from the pantry.

  8. Ratatouille....Haahaahaa.

    Oh Sarah, I'm so glad it happened to you and not me. You are so funny.

    Here's to real men!

  9. Update: I called the store's brand line. They will notify the vendor (whoever actually makes the tomato juice, I guess), who will be sending us a "letter of acknowledgement" as well as a pre-paid mailing package so that we can send in our specimen for testing. The woman on the phone told me that the store would also be sending their own letter of acknowledgment and, of course, some coupons.

    Sure hope they aren't for tomato juice.


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