What Is It?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Seung Geel Hong

An elderly couple in a senior citizens apartment building finds something disgusting in a can of grape juice, and they try to find out what it is.

What Is It?

First Edition

By Hong, Seung Geel

© 2019 by Hong, Seung Geel

All rights reserved

ISBN:  978-1-79472-169-2


The following story was inspired by true experience, but the names of persons and organizations were changed to protect the privacy of everyone involved.  Therefore, any similarity between any of the names in this story to any known individual, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Hong, Seung Geel


My wife and I live in a senior citizens high-rise building in *****, **.  The building is 12 stories high and has 180 apartments.

We enjoy living here, and we feel very fortunate to live in a place where there is regular care and entertainment for us:  A visiting nurse checks our blood pressure twice a month; a man comes to our building and sets up “Quality Dollar Store” from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. every three weeks; we have a monthly potluck dinner; there is “bingo” every Thursday evening; we can play different card games four days of the week; a free movie is shown in the activity room every Friday evening; we even have live (l?v) music entertainment once or twice a month.

In addition, there are gatherings for those who have special interests or talents, such as meetings for Bible study, stitchery, and ceramics.

We also have many events and activities that are special or seasonal, such as the annual flu-shots and pneumonia-shots that are offered before each winter.

It would be difficult for me to list all the wonderful things that are offered to us in our building.

Oh, . . . every month, those of us who qualify for food assistance (my wife and I included) go into the activity room and wait for our names to be called so that we can collect a box of government-distributed canned and packaged food, often called “surplus” or “commodities.”  Each of us also gets a 2-pound “brick” of American Cheese and a couple of boxes of breakfast cereal.  And during the holiday season, we even get frozen meat, such as hamburger or pork patties.

Yes, my wife and I very much enjoy living here.  And the following story (which we actually experienced) was not written as a complaint; it was written merely to share our interesting experience.

We hope you enjoy it.


What Is It?

1. The Introduction

To whom this letter may concern:

My name is Larry Hensel, and I am writing this letter while a real-life story is developing.  The story involves food contamination, and I feel that the following incident needs to be investigated immediately:

2.Sunday (11-09-08)

My wife decided to clean out the refrigerator this morning, and she noticed an opened 46-ounce can of grape juice at the right-rear of the top shelf.  It was the juice that we had received in a commodities box.  And evidently, the grandchildren had consumed approximately 1/3 of the juice and had pushed the juice-can to the rear of the shelf, and some tall items were placed in front of it.  Hence, my wife and I assumed that the grape juice was still unopened and therefore ignored it for a couple of weeks.

Then, when my wife saw the opened grape juice when she was cleaning out the refrigerator, she drank a cup of it and noticed that it had a bad taste.  Therefore, she poured out the remainder of the juice into the kitchen sink and noticed something solid in the can.  She reasoned that, since the juice had been sitting at the back of the refrigerator-shelf, some of the juice must have frozen.  And she turned the can upside-down so that the supposed frozen juice could melt and drain out into the sink.

Two hours later, while my wife and daughter were shopping at the grocery store, I shook the juice-can and heard a faint “thump-thump” sound.  I could barely hear the sound, but I definitely could feel a soft object bumping against the inner side(s) of the can as I shook it back-and-forth.  I now knew that whatever was inside the container could not possibly be frozen juice, because any type of frozen liquid (inside a metal can) would make a “clattering” sound instead of a “thumping” sound.

Therefore, I completely removed the top end of the can to see what was inside, and to my horror, I saw something that resembled a clump of raw chicken-giblets!  There was almost enough of the strange substance to fill a teacup, and it was covered with fuzzy, green mold!  My imagination now was running wild, and I imagined that whatever I was seeing could be something even worse than chicken-giblets.

 I immediately called the county health department for advice, but it was closed; it was Sunday.

So I called the hospital, where a lady (after speaking to another person) suggested that I take the evidence to the police or the sheriff department.

Then, when I contacted the police department, I eventually was told that they would send a car whenever a car became available.

While waiting for the police to arrive, I became very nervous, and when I happened to glance at the entrance-monitor and noticed my wife and daughter walking into the building, I became emotional and my eyes began to tear, because I visualized my family-members becoming gravely ill from drinking the contaminated grape juice.

Later, a policeman arrived while I was away from the apartment (about 3-1/2 hours after I had called the police department).  He looked into the juice-can and agreed that the product was contaminated.  He, then, explained to my wife that the police department does not deal with food contamination, and he advised my wife to notify the party who delivers the commodities.

Meanwhile, after nearly 3 hours of waiting, I suspected that the police department was either not interested in our problem or they had forgotten about it.

Therefore, I called the local newspaper, where a lady seemed very interested in our case.  She wrote down all the necessary information and told me that she would try to get help for us as soon as possible.  However, no newspaper reporter has contacted us yet.  Apparently, the lady at the local newspaper could not find anyone to help us.

3. Monday (11-10-08)

I managed to contact the health department today.  A very sweet lady named “Sherry” asked me many questions and wrote down my answers, and she told me that she would find out as to where I could report the disgusting discovery.  And about an hour later, Sherry called back and told me about the frustrating experience that she had encountered during her task of locating the proper authorities.  She then explained that she did manage to contact the appropriate person at the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and she learned that the USDA could not do anything unless they knew who had distributed the food.

I told Sherry that the food was delivered from the armory.  I also gave her the numbers that were stamped on the top end of the juice-can.

Sherry was pleased to get the additional information, and she told me that she herself would make a report to the USDA so that the authorities could warn the public.

Hence, my wife and I now are waiting for someone from the USDA to contact us.  Thank goodness for Sherry at the county health department!

4. Tuesday (11-11-08)

My wife and I are still waiting for someone to contact us.  I called the health department to learn if Sherry had had any luck with the USDA, but the health department is closed today because of the holiday:  It’s Veterans Day.

5. Wednesday (11-12-08)

I called the health department at about 9:30 this morning and asked for Sherry, and Sherry informed me that she had filed a complaint with the USDA on Monday.  She expects someone from the USDA to contact us (i.e., contact my wife and me).  And therefore, my wife and I need to be ready to hand over the evidence to the authorities.

6. Monday (11-24-08)

It has been two weeks since my wife and I discovered the contaminated grape juice, and we still are waiting for someone to contact us.

We are disappointed that the local newspaper still has not sent a reporter to investigate our story.  Perhaps our story is not newsworthy.  Or possibly, the decision-makers at the local newspaper did not believe me.

I do not know the official reason why no one has contacted us yet, but I feel that, if anyone had become sick or had died from the contaminated grape juice, the authorities would have rushed to our apartment and would have interviewed us by now.  However, since there was no sickness or death involved, no one (except the policeman) has visited us.

I do not know if meat and fruit-juices are handled-and-processed in the same area at the food factories.  If they are, it is conceivable that the contamination could have been accidental.  However, if meat and fruit-juices are not handled-and-processed in the same area, it would suggest that the contamination could be the result of sabotage, which would be unforgivable.  Thus, I feel that our case should be investigated.

Like so many others, I am the type who becomes quite nervous when I must wait very long for an answer, and I thought of calling the health department or the USDA to find out if anyone had been assigned to our case.  But I do not want them to feel that I am rushing them.

On the other hand, if I wait too long (and if no one has been assigned to our case yet), others may feel that I did not have enough concern for public safety.

Furthermore, my wife and I are holding the evidence in the freezer compartment of our refrigerator, and we fear that we might be accused of making a false report in the event that the evidence should somehow be thrown away by well-intentioned visitor(s).

Hence, my wife and I need someone to finish what we began two weeks ago:  We need someone to look at our evidence and get an investigation started.  Could you please help us?


Larry Hensel


7. After the Letter

I wrote the above letter with the hope that someone in an influential position would be willing to read it.  I, then, telephoned the newspaper of a nearby town and spoke to the “man-in-charge”:


“Do you write stories about things that happen outside your town limits?”




“Wonderful!  Do you have anyone who does investigating?


“Yes. . . .”


So far, the conversation was going well, and I believed that the man on the telephone would allow me to send him the above letter via E-mail.

I continued:


“Oh-good, . . . would you be interested in doing a story that involves food contamination?”


Flu contamination?”


Oh-oh, my voice apparently was not clear enough, so I tried again:


“No, . . .  food contamination. . . .”


“Did anyone get sick?”


“No. . . .”


The man on the telephone still seemed to be confused; he continued:


“Then, . . . how do you know that someone got contaminated with the flu? . . .”


For goodness sake!  I still was not making myself clear, and it looked as though I was losing control of the conversation.  And I told myself that I had better “get with the program,” and I again tried to explain:


“No, I opened a can of grape juice, and it was contaminated. . . .


“O-o-o-oh, . . . food contamination!  I thought you said flu!

Anyway, tell me about it.”


Now I was beginning to feel somewhat better, because both of us finally were thinking about the same thing.

I nervously started from the beginning and summarized the story:


“Well, my wife and I live in *****.  And a few weeks ago, we opened a 46-ounce can of government-distributed grape juice, and it contained a chunk of something that looks like raw chicken giblets.

So, I called the health department, whereupon the health department contacted the USDA.

And now we’re waiting for the USDA to contact us.  I even called the local newspaper, but no one has contacted us yet.  And we’re afraid that if the evidence somehow gets thrown away, we might be accused of making a false report. . . .”


I still felt nervous, but I believed that I had done a satisfactory job of explaining the situation.  And I hoped that the person on the telephone would ask me to E-mail the letter.

However, the person replied:


“I don’t cover anything that goes on in *****.”


I was extremely disappointed with the reply.  I knew that I had heard the reply correctly, but I needed to hear it again.

I asked:


“Then, . . . you’re not interested?




I now was satisfied.  It was not the answer that I had hoped to hear.  Nevertheless, hearing it for the second time somehow made me feel more secure.  And I hurriedly ended the conversation:


“Oh, okay.






After hanging up the telephone, I felt deflated.  I wanted to turn the evidence over to the authorities, but things were not working out:  No one seemed to be interested in our case.

I thought of calling the nearby high-school or the community college to learn if they had a journalism class that would be interested in our story, but then I decided that I first should contact the USDA and find out if they had assigned anyone to our case yet.  Moreover, I felt that it would be best for us to wait another week before making the phone call to the USDA.  After all, I wanted to be fair and give them a reasonable length of time to “get things moving.”


A week later (Monday, December 1), my wife and her sister were returning home from a weekend-trip to Kentucky.  They had been visiting a sick aunt, and therefore I had been alone at home.

Anyway, December 1st happened to be the day that we collected our commodities, and unfortunately, the delivery team could not make their deliveries on time.  Therefore, we sat in the activity room most of the day, waiting for the commodity truck to arrive.

In the meantime, I completely had forgotten about contacting the USDA, until 4:00 p.m.

Then, after looking up the phone number for the health department, I dialed the number and asked for Sherry.  I explained to Sherry that the USDA had not contacted me yet, and I asked her to give me the phone number to the USDA.

Sherry sounded surprised to hear that the USDA had not contacted me yet, and she gladly gave me the phone number of the person with whom she had spoken at the USDA.

Hence, I contacted the USDA in *******, **:


“Hello, my name is Larry Hensel, and I live in *****.  I called the health department approximately three weeks ago and spoke to a woman named Sherry.  She contacted you and filed a complaint concerning food contamination:  My wife and I found something that resembles raw chicken giblets in a can of grape juice.

Do you remember the conversation?”


“Yes, I do.  I discussed your case with my superior, and since the grape juice had been open for a couple of weeks, we decided that there is no way for us to verify that the evidence came from the juice-can. . . .”


“So, since no one got sick or died from it, there’s nothing you can do about it? . . .”


“Correct, since there was mold on the evidence, there is no way to know for sure how the evidence got into the juice-can.  If we could have seen the evidence soon after you opened the can, maybe things could have turned out differently, but since no one got sick, there’s no way to know that the evidence actually came from the juice-can. . . .”


“So you’re not going to warn the public? . . .”


“No, there’s no way to know for sure how the evidence ended up in the juice-can.  It could have entered the juice-can any time after the can was already opened. . . .”


“Well, then, how would it be if we call the community college and have their biology department examine it and determine what it is?  Then we can go from there. . . .”


“Yeah, you could do that.

As I explained, without further proof, there’s nothing we can do about it -- what is your phone number again? . . .”


Since the USDA did not intend to investigate our case, we no longer needed to worry about being accused of making a false report, and we felt s-o-o relieved.

Nevertheless, we felt bad that we could not persuade anyone to take our situation more seriously, and we once again began to get nervous.

Therefore, I thought for a few minutes and then called the nearby community college.  I explained our situation to the receptionist, whereupon she gave me the phone number to the math-and-science department.  (It was almost 4:30 p.m. by this time.)

I dialed the number to the math-and-science department, but the moment that a connection was made, an answering machine turned on and broke the connection.  So I dialed the number two more times with the faint hope of reaching a live (l?v) person, but it was no use.  I ended up leaving my name and phone number on the answering machine (which finally operated properly), along with the message that I needed to speak to someone about food contamination.

The next day (December 2), I had a pleasant surprise:  At 8:59 a.m., the community college returned my phone call.  And when I explained the situation to the pleasant-voiced receptionist, she connected me to a man named “Steve,” the head of the biology department.

Steve listened carefully and speculated that the evidence was probably a fungus.  He explained:


“The fungus probably formed sometime after the juice-can was opened, and it simply kept on growing until you emptied the can.

Fungi grow in different forms, and some of them can look very strange. . . .”


Because I was (and still am) completely ignorant about biology, I could not comprehend Steve’s explanation.  Therefore, I commented:


“But, . . . what we have is almost big enough to fill a teacup, and it’s heavy enough to make a thumping sound when I shake the can. . . .”


Steve explained:


“Oh-yes, a fungus can hold a lot of moisture. . . .”


I finally was beginning to understand Steve’s explanation (more or less), and I suggested:


“Well, then, maybe I should take it out of the freezer and let it thaw out for a couple of hours.  Then I can cut into it and see what it’s like.”


Steve eagerly agreed with my suggestion:


“Yes, you could do that.  It sounds like a good idea.”


I was satisfied with what I had learned, and I now could end the conversation:


“Okay, thank you, Steve.  Maybe I’ll call you back later, after it thaws out. . . .”


I was happy with the way that the conversation was ending, and I became even happier when Steve encouraged me to call again:


“Yes, please do.  I’m curious to find out what it is.”


A couple of hours later, I held the evidence under running water and rinsed off all the mold and a piece of thin, slime-covered, transparent layer of unknown substance.  The transparent layer of substance “bunched up” and became easier to see, which resembled a ruptured blister on the inside of a person’s cheek.

Earlier, before the rinsing, the evidence had resembled a clump of raw chicken giblets.  However, after the evidence was cleaned up, it looked more like a crumpled sheet of smooth muscle tissue that measured approximately 5”x3”x 3/32.”  It was stretchy, and a small cone-shaped part of it (which was hollow) had an outer surface that was covered with something that looked like goose bumps.

I cut off the cone-shaped part of the evidence and tested it for its toughness:  It was similar to cutting into a piece of cooked chicken gizzard.  I presumed that, if the evidence were something other than a fungus, the grape juice could have weakened its original toughness.

In any event, I telephoned Steve’s office to discuss what I had learned, but there was no answer.  Therefore, I left two messages on his answering machine, briefly describing what I had accomplished and asking him to return my phone call.  But unfortunately, Steve failed to return my call that day.

On the following day, I again telephoned Steve’s office twice, and Steve again failed to contact me.

I, then, waited and called Steve again a week later, and I again had no luck.

By now, I was very discouraged with my progress.  It seemed that I was not getting anywhere, and my wife and I still did not know what we were keeping in the freezer compartment of our refrigerator:  It appeared to be either a piece of smooth muscle tissue of an animal or some type of fungus.

If the evidence were from an animal, it could have entered the juice-can sometime during the canning process.  On the other hand, if it were a fungus, then my wife and I would be guilty of its existence, because we had failed to consume or discard the grape juice within a reasonable length of time.

In either case, somewhere around 3:30 p.m., I reluctantly decided to abandon my search for a conclusive answer, because my wife and I could not afford to hire a lab to analyze the evidence.  And so I threw away the evidence and was grateful that none of the grandchildren had gotten sick from drinking the grape juice.


About an hour after I had discarded the evidence, a friend knocked on our door and told me that he was having problems with his computer, whereupon I gathered my tools and left the apartment with my friend.

My friend’s computer needed a new hard drive and a soundcard, which my friend purchased at the nearest “Best Buy.”  And we spent the next 4-1/2 hours installing the new hardware, re-installing the operating system, and just “shooting the breeze.”

Then, when I returned home around 9:30 p.m., my wife told me that Steve had called at approximately 4:50 p.m.  He explained that he had suffered a bad case of the flu.

In any event, after listening to my messages on his answering machine, Steve admitted that he could be wrong (though highly unlikely), and he welcomed me to bring the evidence to him and have him analyze it. . . .

Unfortunately, as ill luck would have it, since I already had dropped the evidence down the trash chute, we will never know for sure what was inside the juice-can.

Submitted: May 10, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Seung Geel Hong. All rights reserved.

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