Cultural attitudes towards stale food?
April 9, 2022 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Crackers. Cereal. Potato chips. These foods go stale when left exposed to air, so we avoid this by sealing bags and containers. I always assumed this was universal, but is it? Is staleness considered perfectly fine in some cultures?

I live with some folks from a different part of the world, and staleness doesn't seem to bother them. Looking beyond my petty annoyance that food is always going stale because bags are just left wide open all the time - could this be a cultural difference?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: As a food geek, I LOVE this question and am hoping you get input from multiple foodways & cultures.

There are plenty of examples from various cultures of repurposing stale/dried out carbs (ribollita, panzanella, chilaquiles, stuffing, etc). In the case of stuffing/dressing, the texture of the final dish is dependent on starting with stale bread. But I'm struggling to think of an example from North American and broadly European food traditions where a food is purposely not consumed until it has gone stale. Or one that is enjoyed equally when fresh and when stale without any other changes to said food.

There are some cookies and sweets where the optimal texture depends on aging the product a bit. Homemade marshmallows need to set up/dry out for a day or so. Some butter cookies (think shortbread) have a more buttery flavor if left for a few days/weeks. However, in both cases I would argue this isn't going stale.

Fruitcake is aged, usually with the help of alcohol or maybe a tea, both of which act as preservatives, so I'm not sure you would consider that stale.

In the end, we use the term stale to denote an unpleasant change. My examples above use aging to improve the product.

I guess with Easter approaching, I should mention some folks prefer old Peeps because they like the firmer texture of the dried out surface. Would that count?

Personally my tolerance to staleness over my lifetime has depended on my access to food. When I was really broke, I was more tolerant of staleness because stale food was better than no food.
posted by jenquat at 2:57 PM on April 9, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Could your friends be from a very low humidity location where staleness simply doesn’t happen? Maybe they don’t close bags because it doesn’t matter (where they are from) and maybe they aren’t on alert for staleness due to lack of familiarity?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 3:45 PM on April 9, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It might be a cultural difference in preferred food textures + prevalence of certain foods.

North Americans are really into crunchy / crispy textures like cereal and potato chips, and will keep them on hand in the household. In contrast, when I lived in Korea, potato chips were bought as a snack to eat immediately with friends, but giant bags of tortilla chips weren't a thing. Cereal I had to go to the specialty imports markets to buy. It's not that crispy doesn't exist in Korean food, it's just not nearly as central?

In addition, chewy food is much more appreciated in Korea. The example in the linked article mentions Japanese people eating dried squid - this is true in Korea and I assume in parts of China as well. So perhaps the reduction in crispiness of certain foods doesn't register as strongly for your housemates as it does for you?
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:47 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

an example from North American and broadly European food traditions where a food is purposely not consumed until it has gone stale

French toast? Bread pudding? Both of those were created as a way to salvage the calories out of last week's bread.

My parents grew up in a food-rationed environment and to this day my mother will eat stale food rather than throw it out. I dunno if that counts as cultural difference, but it certainly originates in having to spend hours standing in line for food distribution and winnowing grain to get rid of ergot. That sort of thing tends to have a big impact on what you consider "stale."
posted by basalganglia at 3:54 PM on April 9, 2022 [5 favorites]

Could your friends be from a very low humidity location where staleness simply doesn’t happen?

Alternately they could be like me, in a high-humidity location, where things don't go stale, they go mouldy instead.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 4:15 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Some people prefer stale peeps.. The question is how long to age them?
posted by ShooBoo at 4:28 PM on April 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

I like some kinds of crackers when they are a little stale/chewy but just assumed that was a personal weirdness.

One related American example might be cold leftovers...some people prefer day old pizza or Chinese right out of the fridge.
posted by emjaybee at 4:47 PM on April 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: AFAIK, Taiwanese are into chewy textures. They use the term "Q" (cue) texture to describe a certain degree of chewiness that's not quite the same as Italian "al dente" but roughly analog... soft, but not mushy, "springy and bouncy", but that doesn't really have anything to do with staleness.
posted by kschang at 11:35 PM on April 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

There's an open bag of chips on our counter in Copenhagen right now, and it's been there for days. No one seems to mind. I think "culture" might be a bit of a stretch, but this is definitely a household where leftover and day-old starches are treasured. Not only chips but also yesterday's fries, pizza and pasta including fried noodles and of course fried rice. And I suspect that the kids prefer old bread to fresh, because in their opinion, it toasts better. Bread salads like panzanella and fattoush are very popular. Judging from all the other young people who hang out here, this is normal.

Come to think of it, Danish rye bread is best left to dry for 24 hours before cutting into it, so that may be a cultural influence on our preferences. Nearly all Danes eat dark, chewy whole grain rye bread every day. I bet it is the same in Poland and Northern Germany.

Also, though we have a big airtight container with corn flakes, no one eats from it, and it has been decided that the dog can have it (over time, not all at once). So that might be a factor. Cereals are not a core food item.

Maybe it is a bit like when most Americans prefer their water with a lot of ice in it, whereas many other people prefer it without, or with just a couple of cubes. I suppose that is a cultural difference.
posted by mumimor at 4:54 AM on April 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sorry about the double post, can the mods remove one of them?
posted by mumimor at 4:55 AM on April 10, 2022

A coworker moved from Denver to Chicago and learned what “going stale” really even meant for the first time regarding chips, etc. He thought it only applied to cakes/breads/etc that dry out. (Which brings up the whole cake vs biscuit uk discussion and Jaffa cakes and if an item goes stale by going soft or by drying out and going hard).
posted by raccoon409 at 5:00 AM on April 10, 2022

You didn't list it as a specific example but personally I [east coast US] store bread (excluding very soft "sandwich bread") in a paper bag, maybe with some cling film over the cute side. Some people store bread in ziploc/plastic bags with the idea that it prevents it from going stale, but to my taste buds that makes it go stale even faster. In this case though it might depend on what exactly is meant by "stale" - to me going stale means an "unpleasent change" as someone else described it. I guess if you strictly defined going stale as losing moisture content then technically the plastic bag would prevent staling, but I just care about bread tasting good.

Also I kinda like stale crackers, tortilla chips, etc. My approach is generally "Does it taste good? Then it's not stale." Whereas I've known people who would throw out food after X days as a rule because it's "gone bad" despite still tasting perfectly fine to me and there isn't any actual food safety issue.
posted by ToddBurson at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2022

I grew up in the Midwest where cereal and chips go stale almost immediately unless resealed. When I moved to the desert locals made fun of me for being fussy about closing bags. I tried an experiment and lo and behold chips, cereal, and crackers could be left overnight without losing their crisp!

At a family gathering back in the Midwest, sister-in-law (lifelong resident of high altitude, low humidity Colorado) was constantly reminded to reseal everything. She did not realize it would go stale.
posted by Ookseer at 8:58 AM on April 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

My husband had to learn to reseal things but that was because he grew up in a family teeming with hungry people and things weren’t around long enough to go stale. Just to confound your premise further. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 9:04 AM on April 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

A contrary example: a pet peeve of mine with my partner is that he's very bad at closing chip bags, cracker boxes, etc. He also freely admits he doesn't mind the taste of these items when they get stale. We're both white Americans.
posted by coffeecat at 10:06 AM on April 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

I am also from the high desert of CO and didn’t really understand what people meant by stale until I moved east.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:22 PM on April 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Aren’t vermin a bigger issue when it comes to resealing?

I have noticed personal differences more than cultural differences when it comes to “tolerance” for staleness — for example, my partner will eat bread or crackers or popcorn that I would never touch because it’s been sitting out or gone stale. We’re not from exactly the same background, but pretty similar and we grew up in the same metro area.

But I am also much more uptight about sealing food than he is in general, because every time I see unsealed food, I think it’s going to attract bugs or rats (and in our climate, it does).

I have noticed cultural differences in terms of sealing food, but all the people that I know who are more likely to just cover something with a cloth rather than seal it in a container, or leave leftovers on the stove rather than the fridge to store, are no more likely to be OK with staleness than I am. They’re just much less worried about roaches and rats and moths and ants.

I don’t like staleness, but food storage is more of a cleanliness issue than a staleness issue in my mind.
posted by rue72 at 2:46 PM on April 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

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