Office Lunch: A Secret Condiments Stash

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Office Lunch: A Secret Condiments Stash

Erin Hartigan has a spicy secret she doesn’t tell her colleagues: she keeps a mini-fridge full of condiments hidden in her office.

In it, she stores all manner of spirited treasures, from garden variety sriracha and sambal (store-bought and homemade), to tamarind tomato relish and Brooklyn Deli tomato achar. Each one is intended to satiate boredom with different elements of vinegar, spice and earthiness. “It’s a little spice smorgasboard,” says Hartigan, the programming manager at FoodNetwork.com.

The contents liven up meals and foster relationships between coworkers, and Hartigan has handpicked a chosen three, individuals at the top of her own personal favor system who are allowed to share in the riches. The fridge and its precious spices became a sort of glue for office workers beaten down by long days spent under the ceaseless buzz and harsh light of fluorescent tubes.

“I’m the horrible Manhattan desk luncher who never gets up to eat,” says Hartigan. “I never create an occasion. It’s so terrible.”

Every day, Hartigan brings a hodgepodge of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, tied together with brown rice. These “manager special combos,” as she calls them (which sit on her desk throughout the morning) are often flavorless bowls of individual constituents bound together by no common thread.

The epicurean condiments she adds to these meals create continuity, but they also create a singular moment and a special occasion.

Hartigan and her chosen trio are not alone. For many Americans, a Lean Cuisine or simple Cup-O-Noodles will no longer satisfy midday hunger pangs. Every meal has to be an event — even if it’s wolfed down while staring at a computer screen.

Michelle Alandete, the senior coordinator in global design and innovation for Starbucks, does not keep fridges in her New York City or Seattle offices, but she, too, keeps her favorite condiments close at hand. For the past five years, she’s been bringing sauces to the workplace to brighten her day and her deskside lunch breaks. It started with mustard while working for Subway’s building team; however, when she discovered sriracha two and a half years ago, her world, and workday, were forever changed.

A bottle of rooster sauce is now prominently displayed on both of Alandete’s desks. The mere sight of that cartoon fowl releases stress and tension, reassuring her that she has everything she needs during the course of her 10-hour days. “Being able to look at that bottle right next to me, it makes me feel comforted and at ease,” she says. “It makes me feel at home.”

In a world where so many working adults spend much of their waking life in the workplace, many have taken to recreating the essence of home in the business place. Dousing a dish with a favored condiment fosters a sense of individuality in the monotony of the corporate sphere.

Some office workers, however, don’t stop at flavor accoutrements. There are folks who have created entire pantries of foodstuffs.Amanda Nickerson Toste, realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Rhode Island has, at times, equipped her space with sriracha, soy sauce, sea salt and pepper crackers, wasabi packets, granola bars, fruit snacks and fruit leathers. Her supplies are so bountiful, favored colleagues would drop by her desk to season their food and chat before returning to dine at their workspaces. Nickerson Toste has reinvented the watercooler with zest.

The most common flavoring aides are assorted hot sauces. Native Texan Kate Saunder had Sriracha, Frank’s Red Hot and Cholula in her New York office — the rooster appears to be a universal pick. But some office workers admit that they hide their condiments stash for fear that their flavor addiction may be viewed as strange. High school teacher Neil Alan Schain admits that throughout his career, he hid a stash of ketchup packets from his supervisors and students for that very reason.

“That’s the line in the new Beyonce song about how she’s got hot sauce in her purse,” says freelance writer Ciara Lavelle. “Everyone does it. I can’t be the only weirdo that does this.”

While working at the art and culture editor at Miami New Times, Lavelle used one of her locking 36-inch wide filing cabinet drawers to house her gustatory supplies. She stocked sriracha, ketchup (“I’m a Pittsburgh girl,” she says, “Gotta have your ketchup.”), oatmeal, peanut butter for said oatmeal, tea and cans of soup.

Like the other individuals profiled in this piece, Lavelle’s food hoarding could be partly attributed to the desire to stick close to her desk and away from uncomfortable small talk, creating “a jail of my own making,” she says.

However, there may be another reason for secret condiment stashing — food thievery is often a concern in office pantry refrigerators, and was at Lavelle’s workplace. Items regularly disappeared from the communal fridge in the break room, Lavelle says. Sauces, salad dressings and special coffee creamers seemed to vanish mere minutes after entering the premises. Entire sandwiches dematerialized on several occasions.

The problem was so rife that after losing a highly coveted meal to a shady coworker, one editor at the paper, Rebecca McBane, was inspired to write a public service announcement on the New Times Broward-Palm Beach food blog entitled, “Office Fridge Pillagers: The Great Scourge of Modern Civilized Society.” She taped it to the fridge.

“After I had [my son] Fin, I was pumping in the office. People were so bitter about the stealing —they were like, ‘You should put your breast milk in there as the creamer,’ adds Lavelle. She did not.

Because so many New Times coworkers were so fed up with the stealing, Lavelle, McBane and a few other office friends discussed purchasing a mini fridge, in the same vein of Hartigan, to alleviate the issue. (They never did; however, after one particular employee moved on to another place of business, the pilfering ceased.)

Even though clever workers, like Hartigan, have tricked the system, beating the larcenists, awkward breakroom social interactions and humdrum of the workspace, they are not necessarily safe from predators. Since acquiring her cooling treasure chest one year and three months ago, Hartigan has built her cubicle — and life — around hiding the fridge from the powers that be.

Unfortunately, a strange office odor and a hasty trip out of the door, left Hartigan’s spoils exposed. Facilities discovered her stash, giving her two-months to remove the fridge. “Now, it’s hidden in an undisclosed location,” says Hartigan. “I’m waiting for them to find where I’ve stashed it.”

Let’s hope the man doesn’t win yet again, and Hartigan can keep stocking her refrigerated condiments.

Sara Ventiera is a roaming eater and traveler who looks for amusing stories across the United States. She works from New York, Los Angeles and various places in between. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, New York Daily News, Zagat, FoodNetwork.com and more.

Photo by Mike Mozart CC BY

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