Back in the day–and a long ago day, it was, too–when we barely had two pennies to rub together after paying rent and utilities, we went without a lot of things. No television. No phone. No furniture, actually–having to make do with the tenth-hand shabby shabby (as opposed to shabby chic) salvation army rejects that came with the third story walk-up we lived in. We made ends meet by shopping at the second-hand food store. It wasn’t actually second-hand food of course; but it was the stuff that was rejected by stores that actually paid their electric bills.
The place was painted bright yellow, as if it would somehow fool us into thinking we were upscale clientele. Light streamed in through the plate glass window. Not that the light was that effective. Streaming is probably too strong a word. Light filtered in, between the clumps of dust coating the glass. Walls, floor and ceiling were lemon yellow, a glossy paint half an inch deep over concrete blocks. (You’ve seen those paint jobs that coat everything, welding shut electrical outlets, instead of cementing light switches in one position, painting over the whole switch so that barely the tip of the toggle rises above the paint like fingertips on the hand of a Titanic victim going down for the last time?) And a ceiling so low tall people would have had to navigate carefully to avoid burning their heads on the bare light bulbs if anyone had ever bothered to turn them on. The walls were lined with shelves, and on the floor, dozens of rows of foot deep shelves separated by aisles barely wide enough for a single shopping cart to squeeze by.
The shelves were lined with dusty cans and boxes, all organized (mostly) by type. Maybe ten percent of the cans had missing labels, so unless it was something with a particularly unique can (like tomato paste or LeSueur baby peas), there was no way to know what was inside. Buying unlabeled is a crap shoot.
And all of the items were either unlabeled, expired, dented, damaged or recalled for some reason. Of course these items were cheap. Seriously cheap in fact.
We generally kept to the expired food, since things like canned vegetable soup don’t actually go bad five minutes after the expiration date. But occasionally we’d live dangerously and buy one of those unmarked dented cans, if only to guess (maybe even bet) on what was inside. There were some “can” whisperers among us, who could always tell what was inside a can. Usually.
But one evening we were all sitting on the beach surrounding a fire over which we were pan-frying fish (which are free for the catching), savoring the breeze and relief from the sun, and we were passing the time guessing what might be inside one of the cans that happened to be rolling around in unlabeled, dented glory on my floorboard. I don’t remember what the guesses were–it could have been corn, or beans, or tomatoes, soups, stews or dog food. They were all wrong.
Of course no one had a can opener, but it isn’t that hard to open a can with a knife. So after a time-consuming bout of can-wrangling, we were flummoxed by the large velvety thing that plopped out of the can, in all its organic bodily splendor. In the firelight, it definitely seemed to be moving, watching us as nervously as we were watching it.
As much as it looked like a furry rat stuffed into a can, it turned out to be…
We probably should have taken it to a store to get our money back; or found a laboratory. I’m sure the thing would have made Dr. Frankenstein quite happy. But to avoid a real-life Attack of the Furry Tomatoes—long after the women had run screaming to the cars, and after the fish was removed from the contamination zone—we just dumped it into the fire and made sure it was safely disposed of.
So, word to the wise. When the FDA recalls items, and warns you not to buy dented cans, take their word for it.