Actual cream cheese mold we found in our fridge yesterday.  We thought it was kind of lovely, in its way.


Before I moved to DC, I lived in California, where I shared a house and a fridge with three other women.* We were all in our mid- to upper-twenties and, as such, we were growing more and more interested in what my roommate called “finding domestic autonomy in a shared space.” (She was an English major, too.) When our best friends and siblings were buying houses, choosing dishware, and taking control of hearth and home, we were still stuck in a necessity for college habits. One girl, one fridge shelf. (And maybe a fridge drawer, if your produce was plentiful and you claimed the drawer early.)

This meant, among other things, that I marked my food, like so many college sophomores. When I got home from the grocery store, I pulled out the black sharpie we tucked away in the hot pad drawer, and I made a swirly SO on each item that was going in the fridge. SO on my milk. SO on my lemon curd. SO on my bag of frozen chicken breasts.

It’s not that I was worried that my roommates would eat my food. Perhaps as a result of my large-family upbringing, I like the idea of communal living. I love the story about the time my father heard someone in the kitchen at 3 am, and when he went down to check it out, it was my brother’s best friend, who’d stopped in to eat a carrot. (Our doors were then perpetually unlocked.) My brother was asleep. I love that my family was marked by largess and that we never thought twice about inviting guests to dinner because we might not have enough food. I have always thought of it as the Olson effort to live selflessly. My saltines are your saltines, and my chocolate-covered pistachio nuts are yours, too. I figure that how unflinchingly and how happily I can live this way is a measure of how well I’m learning to love.

Still, with my California roommates, I marked my food. Why? Two reasons: (1) If I forgot an item was mine, then I forgot that I could eat it without feeling guilty. (I had learned from a few early and awkward experiences that not all people buy into my your-cheese-my-cheese philosophy.) But (2) (and more relevantly—since my California roommates were generous-hearted enough to forgive me for eating their food), if I forgot an item was mine, then I also forgot I was responsible for throwing it away when it had been lurking too long and was gross and green and needed to go.

For example:

Sarah, under her breath: “Why doesn’t someone throw this guacamole away? It’s so gross. It’s been here forever.”

Later, Sarah, finding the small SO on the guac container: “Oh, great. It’s mine.”

Let’s not kid ourselves: We are often wrong.

My parents had their first exposure to my marking lifestyle last spring. My family came to visit me when I graduated from law school. After a pre-graduation-party shopping trip, my family crowded into my kitchen to unload. I had to intervene. “No, wait—that goes on my shelf. Upper left.” “Dad, hold on. Mark that before you put it in the freezer.” “Wait, Mom, don’t move that milk. That’s Karren’s. We need to work around that.” The family was agog. My parents, both of whom lived at their parents’ homes until they married each other, had never experienced such a thing. “You have to mark your food,” Dad said to me, as we finished stashing the empty grocery bags away. He shook his head. “I just didn’t realize.”

But then, last summer, a college student moved in with my parents, taking advantage of free rent and the family’s commuting distance to NYC. And he marked his food. For the length of his stay, I would get regular reports about the family’s mishaps with his groceries. Examples: My dad accidentally ate an entire container of his hummus. Also, my brother ate his Triscuits. Intentionally.

Welcome to roommate life, family, where what you call love, your roommate calls stealing.

Also, it’s your turn to buy the eggs.

*In DC, I share a house with two fridges and four women. Our food situation is a mystery to all of us and is kind of a free-for-all. I once heard my roommate Stephanie tell a guest that the guest could eat any of Stephanie’s food. The guest asked, “Which food is yours?” And Stephanie said confidently, “It’s all mine!” I have stopped marking my groceries.