Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bugging out

Salmonella is haunting my social life. Lately, while dining with wife and friends, I’ll look up to find the whole table staring. Then the Simon Says starts. Peter spears a tomato wedge; everyone spears a tomato wedge. A bite of lettuce, and soon the whole party’s crunching. It’s like having dinner with a newly discovered aboriginal tribe that’s not sure what to do with a fork.

Finally, the ah-ha moment: “Peter writes about food safety,” my wife whispered across the table to a couple whose acquaintance we were just making. “He’s been covering this whole salmonella thing and what they think may be causing it.”

Suddenly, I’d become the arbiter of what’s safe to eat.

So, of course, I started messing with them.

A forkful of salad, then a loud, showy gulp of wine. “Kills the germs,” I whispered conspiratorially to my fellow diners. Soon they were knocking back the red and white like pirates on leave.

I’ve been tempted to stare at my full plate for a second, yell “oh, no,” then bolt from the table. But the situation is already too much like a Will Ferrell movie.

But dim-witted clowning might still be better from a restaurateur’s standpoint than the speculation my friends have demonstrated. Like the one who drinks warm soda because she saw a Sweeps-week news story about high bacteria counts in some restaurants’ ice. Or the college professor who hesitated, his fork in mid-air, after being served. “Tomatoes are okay now?” he asked. The only type on his plate were cherry tomatoes, which had been cleared as safe to eat virtually from Day One of the outbreak. And this was six weeks into it, when the spotlight had shifted to peppers. “And how about spinach? Wasn’t there a problem with that?” he asked.

My wife, meanwhile, piped up with her theory that the culprit is probably onions. Not once have onions been cited by authorities as a suspect. But I’m sure she also blames onions for the housing crisis, reality TV and fallen arches. It’s a longstanding antipathy.

And the confusion is equally as persistent. Someday, hopefully before the list of casualties climbs any higher, federal health officials will figure out what has sickened almost 1,100 people. But until they do, customers are going to order in accordance with their preconceptions, regardless of how off the mark they may be. And they might keep doing so even after the mystery is solved.

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Anonymous Orrick Nepomuceno said...

Not too long ago Mad Cow was the all the rage. Now we are dealing with Salmonella. Unfortunately there will always be something that the public will have to be aware of. But I think that it brings to light a bigger issue of the fragility of our food supply system.

Not to be too "Fast Food Nation" a la Eric Schlosser (I know he is your favorite), but there is an looming crisis that is starting to rear its ugly head in our agricultural system. I sat down with and had dinner with chef instructor from culinary school last month, and he complained about the chicken here in the United States.

He went on to say, "The meat here is flavorless and has no color. Back in the Europe, the meat is almost the color of an egg yolk and is full of flavor. There is no wonder so many Americans have to marinate their chicken. It has no flavor."

With agribusiness turning into huge farms that churn out food like factories, it is no wonder that our food safety is at issue.

July 16, 2008 at 5:10 AM  
Anonymous steakman said...

Fragility is relative to what part of the world you live, stomach flora and what you conside flavorless. I'm sure if you asked someone from China or Korea, they would ask you why you let your cats and dogs roam so much. Doesnt that make them tough and flavorless. Ask someone from Africa about stinky monkey meat and they would tell you thats where the flavor comes from. Order a chicken in Malaysia and most likely its never been refrigerated.
Ask someone about food safety or GMO's in a third world country who gets about 500 calories a day and they wont care. The bigger worry for Americans should be our continuing evolution into a species with lessening resistance to all bacteria because of our germophobia. Peter, Please pass the onions, and give me some salsa and guacamole with that.

Sincerely, Steakman

July 17, 2008 at 10:17 AM  

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