Caveat Emptor

by Mark R. Vogel

            Recently I was browsing at a local supermarket pondering what to concoct for dinner.  During my reconnaissance of the seafood department I spied a cache of blue point oysters in the ice.  I adore oysters and this was an unusual find for this particular store.  They were of good size with clean, intact—and most importantly—tightly closed shells.  This was a no-brainer.  Oysters on the half shell would be my first course. 

             I asked the shady-looking clerk for a dozen, pointing specifically to the ones in the display case.  He seemed momentarily flummoxed, wandered somewhat aimlessly behind his prep table, and then told me he had to go in “the back” to get the oysters.  Why was he not simply retrieving the ones from the display case?  And here’s an even better question:  Why didn’t I intervene and inform him that I wanted the ones in the display case?  Hold on—my IQ dropped even further.  Finally the clerk emerges with an opaque bag of oysters.  My entire brain is screaming: check the oysters.  But one lazy, little brain cell triumphed and I proceeded to complete my shopping without giving the dubious bag a second glance. 

             Of course, when I arrived home and opened the bag half of the ousters were dead and malodorous.  They were partially open and would not close.  Never eat clams or oysters that are dead before cooking as there is a greater chance of bacterial infection.  Angrier at myself than the store, I returned, showed them to the manager and promptly received my money back. 

             Caveat Emptor is a Latin phrase that translates as let the buyer beware.  In essence, unless you are given a guarantee of quality from the purveyor, it is the buyer’s responsibility to ensure that the goods are in order.  In simple language, you can’t trust anyone.  Be it malevolence, sloth, or incompetence, things get screwed up. 

             In high-quality restaurants, the food is scrutinized before being delivered to the guest.       As consumers, we need to do the same in our supermarkets.  At the very least you should always inspect the highly perishable products, namely meat, seafood and produce.  Let’s review all three.

             Produce is the easiest to examine since it is out in the open, unfettered from cases or clerks for your analysis.  Each vegetable has its own freshness criteria but basically you are looking for firm, brightly colored specimens with no signs of wilting, damage, or discoloration.  If the selection of a particular item is unsatisfactory, I strongly recommend you ask an employee if they have a fresher supply.  You never know when a new box of parsley is hanging out with the dead oysters in “the back.”  Stores endeavor to unload as much of the older product as possible before restocking and often have fresher items on deck. 

             However, this strategy also depends on the willingness of the employee to retrieve it for you.  A simple “no we don’t have any more” and Joe Lazy doesn’t have to expend any additional energy.  You’ll come to learn through practice which stores’ employees are more customer oriented. 

            Meat and usually seafood can be more troublesome to assess, as they may be inside a display case, which the law prevents you from breaching.  You’re forced to ask the clerk to fetch it and present it to you, or open the package and scrutinize it yourself, as my oysters.  Whichever you choose, do it.  Most employees are diligent but some are not.  Some just want to throw the stuff in a bag and get on to the next customer.  Some may be ignorant and don’t know that open oysters that won’t close are dead (reluctantly giving you-know-who the benefit of the doubt).  And some may actually want to dump inferior product on you.  So always check.

             Meat products should be free of discoloration, naturally moist yet still firm, odorless, and free of inordinate fat or sinew.  Never hesitate to ask the butcher to trim any excess, exterior fat.  Beef should have some visible marbling, i.e., intramuscular fat, a sign of quality and a better tasting cut. 

             Prepackaged meat is problematic.  To thoroughly inspect it you must unwrap it.  Everyone knows that the oldest trick in the book is packaging meat with the good side facing out.  Sometimes the bad side is really bad.  Remember, it’s your money and you have a right to make an informed choice as a consumer. 

             I cannot overemphasize the importance of scrutinizing seafood.  Seafood is exceedingly perishable and generally harbors less margin of error than beef or produce.  First scan the seafood department.  It should look and smell clean, not fishy.  Examine the case. Is everything packed in ice appropriately?  Whole fish should be packed in ice, (including ice within the body cavity), not just resting on top of it.  And don’t be afraid to ask the clerk when it arrived, and if it’s fresh or previously frozen.

             As stated, clams, oysters and mussels should have in tact shells, be closed, or close when tapped.  Whole fish should not smell fishy; the eyes should be clear, the gills bright red, the skin moist, and the flesh firm.  If it has been gutted check the belly to ensure it is free of browning.  If the entails were not removed promptly, enzymes in the stomach can begin to disintegrate the flesh.  Shrimp and fish fillets, like cuts of meat, should be free of discoloration, naturally moist yet still firm, and odorless.  Quite simply, if anything looks or smells icky, caveat emptor!

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