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Getting rid of refrigerator odors takes more than box of baking soda

Catch a whiff of this ...

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Somewhere, in the depths of my refrigerator, the undead soul of a rotten chicken breast lurks.

Actually, it may be a chicken thigh, or possibly even a drumstick. But that's beside the point. The point is the refrigerator smells. And it smells bad.

The odor first became noticeable about four days ago. It wasn't particularly strong at the time, just a hint of something nasty when the door was opened. There was the usual whiff of stale air, decomposing vegetables and condiment conglomerate that always assails the refrigerator forager.

But underneath there was a definite twinge of rotting in the air.

I couldn't quite tell what it was at that point though; it was more of a forewarning of foulness to come. Like in B-rate horror movies where the overly endowed blonde starlet with the five-inch stiletto heels announces to her friends that she's going to go look for her boyfriend, in the woods, at night -- alone! Except a teensy bit more subtle.

Refrigerator odors are the worst because spoiled food has the manners and social etiquette of a dog in heat. As soon as the refrigerator door is shut the spoiled item starts licking and rubbing up against the rest of the food in the fridge. It's only a matter of moments before everything else smells as bad as it does. You can throw out the offending item as soon as it goes bad, but the next time you open a bottle of ranch dressing you'll still end up with a salad that smells like regurgitated lasagna.

I grew up in a household where my mom spent years trying to convince my dad of the importance of not leaving his uncovered liver and onions leftovers right next to the open carton of milk. Have you ever eaten a bowl of cereal that smelled like internal organs? Trust me, it is definitely not "magically delicious." As a result of this experience, I'm quite familiar with the evils of refrigerator rot. So at the first sign of trouble in my fridge, everything with noticeable signs of spoilage or questionable expiration dates is thrown away -- the typical refrigerator preemptive strike. But as the rotten chicken smell gained potency over the next few days it was clear the culprit had eluded the raid.

The chicken was being crafty. It was sealed up securely in a plastic container, looking for all the world like a healthy, happy piece of hacked up fowl awaiting its turn in the frying pan. By the time I thought to open the container it was too late. Just leaning in the general direction of the chicken was enough to render a sumo wrestler unconscious. It got so bad that even the box of baking soda I'd put in the fridge to control these outbreaks had begun to mold.

My last hope is that the smell will fade with time at least to the point where I don't notice it anymore. Every home has some sort of unpleasant odor, usually caused by smokers, water damage, dipnetting season, babysitters' improper disposal of diapers, a spilled bottle of Michael Jordan cologne, hazardous waste storage, undetected cat vomit, ritual sacrifices -- you know, the usual.

Once you live in the house for a while you don't notice it anymore. You can invest in Glade Plug-Ins, carpet freshener, room deodorizer, scented candles or some other form of odor-masking tactics and hope they cover it. But you never really know if it does until you go on an extended vacation and return with fresh nostrils.

Even though you become immune to general home odors, the more localized ones can still be picked out. These occur in specific areas -- a bath mat, under the sink, a silverware drawer, a single throw pillow, etc. Localized odors can be tricky to combat because the cause may or may not be apparent. You may know that little Susie once threw up her Fruit Loops on that pillow, or that Harry the Hamster met his untimely demise behind the water heater. Then again, you may not be aware of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich stashed underneath the recliner cushion, or the dirty underwear stuck behind the sock drawer. If you don't know what caused the odor, there's not much you can do to get rid of it.

I think those wine tester guys would make a killing hiring themselves out as professional home smellers. They make their living detecting and identifying the subtlest scents. If they can tell a wine has "a hint of jasmine" or "a delicate aroma of thyme and ginger" and was grown in soil where an aardvark died and decomposed in 1742 they could surely be able to explain why the kitchen cupboard smells like feet.

It would be easy, just pay them a fee and have them walk around your house and tell you what stinks.

"Strong aroma of cat, coupled with three-day old chicken casserole, a hint of moldy pizza box, unlaundered gym socks and a light touch of stale beer."

I would be happy to pay whatever it cost to enlist such a service in my undead chicken situation. They could at least tell me if my arsenal of baking soda, disinfectant and air freshener spray are doing any good.

I am hesitant to have someone try it though. There's this nagging fear that the guy will take one whiff of my kitchen, go "Dear God, what died in here?" and not be able to smell anything beyond compost piles and paint thinner ever again.

So I'm stuck facing the chicken smell on my own for now. But I am making progress. The actual chicken piece is long gone and my eyes don't water nearly as much as they used to when I open the fridge. I just wish I didn't hear that eerie "bawk bawk" sound of chicken laughter every time I change the box of baking soda.

Jenny Neyman is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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