RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you're looking for evidence that the moral fabric of America is fraying, the office kitchen might be a good place to start. I'm talking of course about lunch theft. A communal fridge is a sort of social experiment. Take away the constraints of codified laws and the watchful eye of authority and see what happens behind closed Tupperware containers. And even for those of us trying to do the right thing, it's hard to know exactly what the rules are. Is a squirt of ketchup OK? What about what those cupcakes that just have that communal look about them? Dan Pashman has been exploring the tangled ethics of office eating recently on his podcast, The Sporkful. He joins us now to help sort out right from wrong. Hey, Dan.
DAN PASHMAN: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: For the record, I don't do this. I do not steal people's food from fridges, a little milk here and there for my coffee. But, you know, I try to control myself.
PASHMAN: Some people would say then that you do steal. Theft is theft. A drop of milk - throw her in the slammer. But there are those who say, hey, look you don't want to have 50 ranch dressings.
PASHMAN: If every person brings in their own dressing, everyone brings in their own ketchup, everyone brings in their own coffee milk.
MARTIN: There won't be room in the fridge.
PASHMAN: Right. So the idea of having some sort of communal approach - hey, let's all just short of share - a few drops of salad dressing here and there, most of the time, are a victimless crime. That's one argument people have made.
MARTIN: My internal test is whether or not I feel guilty if someone catches me in the act. Like, if a little part of dies inside and I want to shrink away, then I feel like maybe I have stolen something.
PASHMAN: Well, I want you to know, Rachel, if you ever find my vinaigrette in the fridge, you can help yourself.
MARTIN: Thanks, Dan. So I mean, we're talking about vinaigrette, salad dressing, milk. I mean, that's small stuff really. But you heard a lot worse in your reporting on this, right?
PASHMAN: Yeah. I heard some extreme stories. In fact, the first Sporkful episode on this topic features a woman named Heather Coleman. And she was victimized over a period of months.
MARTIN: Victimized - her food was getting stolen.
PASHMAN: So someone would take her leftover sandwich out of the fridge and slice a peace off and put the rest back.
PASHMAN: They would take one of her two remaining slices of pizza, eat it and put the rest back as if to taunt her.
MARTIN: That's horrible. That's horrible.
PASHMAN: That's right. She left notes. She sent all-staff emails. She even started looking at the schedules of her fellow employees to find out who had lunch break after her to try to find the suspect.
PASHMAN: And she can laugh about it now. The story does have an intense and gripping conclusion, but she also did talk to me about why this was so painful for her.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SPORKFUL")
HEATHER COLEMAN: Food is so personal. Like, for example, if someone used up, like, all my Kleenex or all my post-its, I would just go get another one, and it would be no big deal. But the touching of my food, I really felt violated.
MARTIN: It is worse because they didn't just take it. They touched it and left it, which is gross.
PASHMAN: Well, I don't want to tell you exactly how this story ends. But I will tell you that it involves her chasing a coworker into the bathroom while brandishing a burrito and a spork.
MARTIN: Always a spork.
PASHMAN: But I did get a couple great tips on how to prevent office fridge theft.
PASHMAN: Well, first thing I'll tell you is that the all-staff email and the snarky note, in my research, I found those did not work.
PASHMAN: In fact, I came across one guy who will intentionally steal people's food when they leave snarky notes, which, like, the logic of that is questionable at best. But avoid the notes. I got a great suggestion from Evan in Seattle. This is what his friend did.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SPORKFUL")
EVAN: He took a selfie of himself with his tongue inside the opening of the bottle and just taped it onto the front of the bottle. And people quit taking his vinaigrette.
MARTIN: 'Cause that's gross. (Laughter).
PASHMAN: That's right. And I heard stories of people who, like, they would plant an insane number of jalapenos in their food.
MARTIN: Oh, man. Sabotage.
MARTIN: Who knew? People are very, very serious about protecting their food. Thank you for those helpful tips. Dan Pashman speaking with us from the studios of WNYC in New York. You can hear even more about office eating on his podcast, The Sporkful. Dan, thanks so much.
PASHMAN: Thanks, Rachel. Watch your lunch.
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