Most of us have a sauce stash — a random drawer or Ziploc bag dedicated entirely to stockpiling leftover condiment packets. Deep down, we know the packets will go unopened, but the thought of wasting them compels us to keep collecting. For many of us, our sauce drawer represents a failure to let go. For the sauces themselves, it serves as a mass grave.
There are people out there, however, who have a stronger relationship with their sauce drawer. They use their sauces, cherish their sauces and admire their sauces. They provide a comfortable, loving home for their sauces, and their sauces return the flavor, so to speak.
“My condiment hoarding started with my family,” says Matthew, who has a rotating sauce drawer in his fridge. “As someone who’s first-generation, my parents started in the States dedicating their life to work, pursuing the ‘American Dream’ and building a life so that their kids could have a better one. A byproduct of that, and my Asian culture, was being frugal to save money — if we got takeout, we’d save the leftovers, the packaging (which we then used as makeshift Tupperware) and, of course, the sauce packets.”
While Matthew benefits financially from his sauce collection — he tells me that ketchup bottles are obsolete in his home — the sauces themselves are secondary to the feeling of “saving and making the most use of what you have.”
Jay (an alias), the son of a man who hoarded sauce packets, tells me that his condiment-loving father had a similar motivation for maintaining a pristine sauce drawer. “My dad would get sauce packets any time he’d get food to-go from a fast-food restaurant,” he explains. “He’d never throw anything away if it wasn’t opened or used. You should see the paper napkin drawer.”
Jay adds that his father’s impoverished background contributed to the development of his sauce-hoarding habits. “My dad was born in a wood-frame house on a dirt road in a West Texas town,” he says. “He grew up with the mindset that you never waste anything of value. I’m trying to break that trend, although I find myself hanging onto Chick-fil-A mayonnaise packets without my wife’s knowledge.”
There are also sauce-packet collectors like Levi, who compile them out of admiration, rather than with intention to use them. “I don’t think I’ll ever use a packet,” he says. “I don’t even use condiments much in my day-to-day life. I might if I desperately need to, but I don’t see that happening.”
Levi has been working at a supermarket, home to a deli, which is where he collects most of his packets. “Whenever I grab a corn dog or something for lunch, I take a few extra packets,” he explains. “Also, there are almost always some extras in the breakroom, left behind from my coworker’s lunches. That accounts for around 90 percent of my collection. The other 10 percent or so comes from fast-food restaurants and the like. I also took some leftover relish packets from a school fundraiser.”
“My current collection is around 85 pieces or so,” he adds, with his favorite being a “Popeyes honey sauce, because I only have one and don’t eat at that particular restaurant very often.”
For Levi, collecting sauce packets has become a sort of obsession. “It all started because I had some leftover packets from a meal, but it quickly grew into a challenge for myself to get as many as I could,” he explains. “It might have to do with the fact that I’m somewhat of a hoarder. I’ve had a lot of little collections, but none this big. The dream would be to establish some sort of a world record.”
For many of these sauce hoarders, fast-food establishments are goldmines — Matt tells me that taking an excess of sauces from any other local, family-owned restaurants feels like stealing — but the pandemic has strangely thrown a wrench in their ability to amass sauces. Kyle, who has a suddenly-waning collection of Taco Bell sauces, tells me, “Up until the pandemic, the packets were just stacked in the lobby — free to all without question, so you could grab a huge handful each time.”
Indeed, Taco Bell sauces were once so unregulated that an Indiana man was able to amass more than 25,000 packets over a few years. But with many restaurant lobbies closed and new regulations in place — combined with an already increasingly stingy sauce-packet market — sauce drawers round the world are depleting. “The recession taught fast-food restaurants that you must run a much more efficient operation. You must run a tight ship, and you cannot get by being loosey-goosey and freewheeling with your condiment packets,” Sam Oches, who edits a fast-food-industry trade magazine, told Slate in 2015.
For those who collect sauce packets and are unable to go through them quickly enough, this might not be such a bad thing — many condiment packets stay good for less than a year. “It used to irritate me to no end seeing all the saved food sauces,” Jay says. “Dad would offer them to us or our kids when we went over to their house. I was always worried about how many years those packets had been sitting in that drawer.”
But concerns about a diminishing sauce-packet market and expiration dates aside, those who uphold the tradition of cultivating a sauce drawer will do their best to keep collecting. “For now, I just store them in my desk drawer, which measures around 18 inches by 14 inches, and three inches deep,” Levi says. “If my collection outgrows the drawer, I’ll clean out the left drawer and possibly the two below.”
As for Jay, despite his initial skepticism, the drawer his dad once drooled over has since grown on him. “My dad passed away last year after battling cancer. When I think about that drawer now, I get a good laugh out of it,” he says. “We become our parents. I’m headed down that same road. You should see all the free plasticware I have stashed away in case we run out of clean silverware.”