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This is Swati, and you're reading The Mustard Sandwich, a munchable and highly lunchable periodical spotlighting curious food stories. 

Every morning, I twist open the cap to the gallon of (cow's) milk in my refrigerator and take a whiff before pouring it into my chai. The tea has ceased to be the ritual. I've transitioned to milk sniffing. This started during the pandemic when I began noticing milk going smelly long before the expiration date. There have been times when I've forgotten to smell the milk, or I was too generous with my post-wafting evaluation and ended up with bacteria pearls in my tea.

The milk is a recent development, though. I've had Shelf Life Anxiety my entire life because of my father, a food scientist and ipso facto a spoilage expert. I grew up in a factory with massive commercial refrigerators with those plastic flaps between the door and chamber that whack you in face like Bigfoot's shower curtain every time you walk in and out. Before an employee would even open the cooler door to roll in a shipment, my (Indian) dad would bellow – Jarge, cloje the door!

I do the same thing at my house now and I live alone. I was always weird about this because even at home my dad would grumble about my mother and sister dawdling with the fridge door open, and opening and closing it too fast. That's a problem because the rapid swinging of the door sucks all of the cold air out and slamming it shut forces all of the hot Southern California air in. No bueno.

My dad would explain how these subtle changes in environment and temperature increase the microbial load of food, especially animal products like milk and cheese. If food was exposed, condensation would introduce free water activity, which bacteria love. I would listen intently to Food Science Lecture Hour at the breakfast table as he dropped raisins into his hot tea and dinged his teaspoon on the rim of one of my mother's bone china cups five times. She would quietly be sweeping the morning's crumbs away, ignoring his every word.

Memories like this run through my mind as I frantically assemble my humble teacher sandwich each morning. Every second that goes by in my struggle to peel waxy toilet paper squares off of my pepper jack slices exponentially multiplies the number of microbes partying on their cheesy dance floor, as well as my concerns for the planet and the combustible state of food. As the world turns to a furnace, spoilage up and down the food supply chain is but one concern, but it looms large according to my childhood wiring.

A Schoolyard Oasis

Entering the Abraxas Garden

Being a teacher affords few opportunities to explore outside of the classroom. This is one of the reasons I prefer my current job as a school district contractor. What I lose in adequate pay and benefits I gain in freedom. It's a costly tradeoff and I often wonder how much ingenuity and creativity would be unleashed if we had universal healthcare in America. But I won't go down that rabbit hole now – see GIF above.

A couple of months ago I had an opportunity to do a school visit in San Diego as part of a model school recognition program. Normally I love excursions like this, but I was dreading this visit because it was during the tail end of Fall Crunch, that time of year when the pressure to button up the semester and not get derailed by the strain of bubonic endemic to public schools is at a fever pitch.

Me and my students hiding from the Tridemic.

I had just come off of two weeks of district testing, which at my school entails chasing kids around with an affirmation-sandwich net, and bribing them with Flamin' Hot Cheetos and politically charged chicken sandwiches to take a 20-minute exam. My brain was buzzing on the drive down to Poway, but as I neared my final destination the overhanging branches of the deciduous trees lining the roadway began to shear away the residue of the month.

As I turned the corner on Glen Oak Road, I spotted the Abraxas Garden, an exemplary small farm and culinary program I had read about in the packet of paperwork I had on the high school. I signed in, said hello, dropped my bags in an office, and walked out to the schoolyard oasis.

A big guy walked up to me – "Hi, I'm Bob." The Abraxas Garden was his brainchild, and he started giving me a tour. We walked to a corner where Woo, an older Chinese-American man, was watering a compost heap. He was consumed by his work, but glanced up to smile. Two tabbies were hopping in and out of the compost bin, their soft paws covered in schmutz. "They're probably after a dead fish we threw in there," Bob chuckled.

I stuck my hand into the black gold and lifted a handful to my nose. Woo was surprised, maybe because I was dressed for a meeting. But despite my mascara and nails I couldn't resist; few smells rival the mineraly aroma of fertile dark earth.

Woo wooing compost

Bob and I continued through a maze of beds. There were herbs and marigolds, roots and greens, and enormous tomato bushes that had drunk life to the lees and were about to become worm food. Tomatoes are by far the most sensual fruit. When brushed, tiny prickles on the undersides of their ornate leaves emit a peppery musk I'd bottle up and rub behind my ears if I was on Farmers Only. Among the scents of summer, it's up there with sunscreen and chlorine.

Tomatoes on the cusp of retirement

We made our way to the aquaponics beds and a sloshing pond where big fat tilapia were doing somersaults over each other. The science is as high-impact as it is simple: the fish swim around, poop, and the nitrite byproduct gets fed to plants through a tubular matrix. A lot of wastewater is leftover in various tanks, and Bob pointed to an enormous peach tree that receives whatever doesn't get piped through to the growing beds.

Just keep swimming

I half imagined taking up residence in a mythical giant peach this tree would bear, making friends with a garden variety of bugs, and hiding from the world in a sweet and tender paradise.

Well, maybe it started that way. As a dream, but doesn’t everything. Those buildings. These lights. This whole city. Somebody had to dream about it first. And maybe that is what I did. I dreamed about coming here, but then I did it. – Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach

My tour concluded in the Abraxas Garden's outdoor restaurant kitchen that had recently been visited by some Food Network folks from the series Chopped. It was a space for students to hone their emerging culinary skills and deliver a farm to table experience for students, staff, and visitors. Another teacher was organizing various tools and spice bottles in a shed that had been converted to a pantry.

I have often extolled the therapeutic benefits of cooking. When I don't know what to do with myself, when my anxiety about the world we live in, the world my students are barely stepping into, takes root in the terroir of my teacher-being, I take refuge in my kitchen. Something about chopping, dashing, washing, and firing sloughs off despair.

I couldn't have been more tired or more eager to start the Thanksgiving break when I found myself at Abraxas High School, but I'm so glad I did because it filled my coffers with some much needed inspiration and the sense of possibility for a future that isn't entirely out of our hands.

A baby greens baby

Interweb Goings-On

Here are some stories I munched on as the year came to a close.

Here are a couple of positives. Dr. Erlich is one dapper fellow and Scott Pelley's introduction is perfect in timbre and intonation. Other than that, we're doomed because, "Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb we're sawing off."

“I’ll Let the Chips Fall Where They May”: The Life and Confessions of Mob Chef David Ruggerio
In the 1980s and 1990s David Ruggerio was a rising star of French cooking in New York—and a proto–celebrity chef with cookbooks and TV shows to his name. But all that success in the kitchen belied the double life he was leading as a rank-and-file member of the Mob. Decades after his fall from grace…

Part profile, part investigative journalism, this long form look into David Ruggerio's double life as a Michelin-star chef and mobster reveals a tortured soul in search of belonging in family and food.

How the Cheesecake Factory became the chain restaurant of millennial dreams
The Cheesecake Factory defied the restaurant industry’s rules of success.

In the United Nations of restaurants, the Cheesecake factory perfectly represents America. It's an over the top, barely functional, morbidly obese member you can't shake. In this endearing homage, Alex Abad-Santos reports on how the chain restaurant has broken all the rules of the business and staked a claim in my generation's heart.

Learning about Deep Springs College made me want to start over. In a world and society where so much seems to be going wrong, it is uplifting to know that there are still secret places where thoughtful leaders are being forged.

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