Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy New Year! And wash your damn hands.

Chickens, in honor of the new year that has begun, and the spirit of change and embracing newness that accompanies this time of year, I want to talk about food safety.

 I know, I know, every other blog in the world is discussing how to stick to your resolutions, how to get rid of those holiday pounds everyone packed on, how to celebrate the wonders of the new year, offering expressions of love and gratitude. 

 And don’t get me wrong, I am full of love and gratitude.  2011, while somewhat relentless, was the best year of my life, since I got to marry my soul mate and best friend, have wonderful travels, and write a book that I am very proud of, which I will get to share with you next summer.

 While I managed to get through the festivities without putting on any weight, I didn’t lose any either, so it is time to get refocused on continuing to get smaller and healthier.  I make it a habit not to make resolutions, except to remember to be good to the people I love, laugh more, be kinder. 

 But a recent experience of a friend of mine made me think about a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a cook and a hostess, and I thought it was time I shared my thoughts.  After all, I consider it my obligation to inspire you all to eat well and entertain better, and sometimes that means fun ideas for tablesettings and delicious recipes, and sometimes it is more practical.

 Last week, one of my besties e-mailed our little lunch bunch to inquire as to the best way to avoid eating at an event at her friend’s home that evening. 

Not because she is on a post-holiday diet, her bod is, as the kids say, slammin’. 

 And not because she has dietary restrictions due to illness or religion. 

 She wanted to know how to handle not eating there because she knows her friend to be lax in the hand-washing department, having witnessed this otherwise put-together pal skip the sink in a public restroom, and a surprising dearth of hand soap in the woman’s personal bathroom and kitchen.

 We all recommended that she eat before she arrived, and then claim a recent bout of stomach flu had left her tummy wonky.   Apparently this tactic worked, and she was able to spend the evening with her friends and not let any food pass her lips.  But it made me think.  Maybe there are people who just don’t know how to handle food safety in their home, or how to make it clear to their guests that there is nothing to fear in the hummus.

 It almost goes without saying that I’m very diligent about food safety. 

 Charming Suitor might say obsessive, but it is his own fault that he didn’t eat the leftover take-out within a time frame I considered to be safe, and my throwing it away was just an expression of my love, protecting him from tummy troubles. 

Every time. 

 (You have three days, my love, and then it gets binned.  Period.)

 Expiration dates are my friends, I do pay careful attention to them.  (Not to be confused with Sell By dates, I’m diligent but not ridiculous.)

 But here is the deal…I have spent my entire adult life dealing with stomach issues.  Gastric reflux since I was 18, gallbladder removal in my early 30s.  I have enough problems dealing with my stomach’s irritability without inviting the additional problems of food-borne illness.  And I have had a few really horrible bouts of food poisoning.  Ever been sick every 45 minutes on a 12 hour plane flight?  No?  I have. 

Not. A. Good. Time. 

And here is the thing about food poisoning.  It is almost never about food that has gone bad, despite my dumping the dim sum.  It is almost always about either cross-contamination in the kitchen or food handlers who have not WASHED THEIR HANDS.

 All those incidences of toxic spinach and deadly cantaloupe?  From workers going to the bathroom in the fields, not washing hands and harvesting their own germs along with the produce.  Which is exactly what you do on a smaller scale if you don’t scrub up after you go potty.  All that salmonella?  One bad bird on a butcher’s board, and every bird after is tainted.

We know that eating out, things are out of your control, you go to places you trust and hope for the best. But you eat the majority of your meals at YOUR HOUSE.  That’s right.  Your best chance of getting food poisoning is to not have YOUR kitchen properly maintained, or forgetting to wash YOUR hands before you touch food.

 And since it can take food-borne illness up to 48 hours to incubate, that means the sickness you so easily blame on the restaurant you ate at tonight, could have really been the food you prepared yourself last night. 

 I’m not insane.  I don’t expect everyone to keep their kitchens like an operating theater.  I certainly don’t.  But there are a few simple things you can do to really make a difference. 

 And let me be clear, your friends NOTICE. You might think nothing of your son’s muddy soccer cleats and the dog’s battered chew toys dumped on your kitchen island, but people who come over see that and think “Hmmm, I think I’ll skip the cupcakes.”.  Mary Ann and The Professor might be cherished furry members of your family, but watching them prance out of the litterbox and then take up residence on the cutting board says “No crudites for me, please.”.

 And for sure, the one time you and I go to the ladies together and you keep me company while I wash my hands and you don’t so much as wave yours in the vague direction of water, that is the last time I break bread at your house.

 I have some really good friends who are terrible cooks.   Really REALLY awful.  Over or underseasoned veggies, meat the texture of shoe leather, crunchy in the middle potatoes, watery soups and mushy pastas.  But I double down on my Prilosec and eat at their tables, because what they make they make with love and effort and while I know the food isn’t going to be delish, I also have faith that it isn’t hazardous to my health.  Heartburn I can handle.  Its E-coli I’m not so keen on.

So, how do you make sure that you are keeping your family safe and your friends attending your parties?  It’s actually not that complicated.

 I swear by a simple diluted bleach solution to keep counters, sinks, and cutting boards ready for duty.  Just ½ t of chlorine bleach in a squirt bottle full of water.  I keep it on hand and give counters a quick spritz and wipe before and after prepping food.  If I prep food in my sink, same goes there.  It couldn’t be simpler, it’s an easy habit to get into, and it isn’t expensive.  Win, win, win.

 Kitchen sponges and rags get a run through the dishwasher along with the evening dishes.  Not necessarily every day, but at least two or three times a week, and for sure after preparing raw meat or poultry or eggs.  Doesn’t damage them, I just pop them in the top rack and let it go.  If you don’t have a dishwasher, a minute or two in the microwave will kill any bacteria, and be sure to toss them in the laundry once a week or so. 

 Cross contamination is your enemy, so wiping up the spilled raw egg from the morning pancake festival, and then using the same sponge to wash the plate and fork or wipe down the cutting board…you can see where the problem lies.  Many restaurant kitchens use different color cutting boards for different foods, but despite my diligence, I’m way too lazy to deal with six different colored cutting boards.  I keep two or three sponges in rotation and once I use one to wipe anything that had raw meats or poultry or uncooked eggs, I immediately pop it right in the dishwasher so I don’t forget where it has been. Then I just use my bleach water spray on my cutting board, and make sure to grab a clean sponge or paper towel for the wipe-down.

 I no longer have pets, but for the eight years I had cats, they had free range of the house….except the kitchen counters.  I trained them as kittens with a squirt bottle of plain water (don’t confuse it with your bleach counter spray, please!), anytime they went on the counter, or geared up for the leap, they got a faceful of water.  Took less than two weeks of being diligent and I never saw them, or any evidence of them, up there again.  If you don’t have the ability to train them, do think about whether you can limit their access to the kitchen when you are not there.  And again, if you can’t manage to keep your countertops a food-only zone, your before and after bleach water regimen will keep things safe.  Keeping litterboxes far away from the kitchen is also a good idea, regardless. 

And finally, there is no substitute for hand washing.  With soap.  I keep pump bottles of liquid soap in the bathroom and next to the kitchen sink.   When cooking, I wash before I start, and in between handling different foods.  Doctors say frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent colds and flu as well, so there are other health benefits!

 I’m not going to get into things like safe cooking temperatures; you know not to give your guests medium rare chicken.  But simple things like keeping your cooking surfaces and cleaning tools and hands clean, they will keep you and your family safe, and your guests asking for seconds.

 I also highly recommend the app Still Tasty to help you figure out if what you are about to eat is in the safe zone.  It totally validates my disposal of the leftover take-out.  (Every time.)

 Having the gang over this weekend, and testing a couple new recipes, so stay tuned for (hopefully) some tasty new recipes!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. Yes, well, my cats do go on the kitchen counter. But food does not. Not directly on the counter. We use plates, cat-free cutting boards or a quick wash with vinegar spray and then paper towels down to protect the food. Never directly on the counter. I agree -- YUCK -- for those who don't wash their hands. My counters may be contaminated, but the food isn't!

  2. Excellent suggestions all around. I'm currently struggling with keeping a 6 yr old adopted stray male cat off my counters. So many years of scavenging for food has made this boy a real pain in my granite...

    Will be making up a spray bottle of bleach solution tomorrow. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I concur! It's a pet peeve of mine that people don't wash their hands enough.

    Case in point; I work with a certain individual who will go out for lunch, pass cash back & forth, come back to the office & start eating right away without washing. Ugh!

    I will leave my home in the am, drive to work & wash my hands even before I put the coffee on.

    Thanks for the reminder to all about this.

    And I can't wait to read your next book!

  4. I almost wish I hadn't read this...It reminded me about my MIL & her cat litter boxes that she keeps in the KITCHEN. She didn't understand why I refused to eat food made in her house the entire 2 weeks we stayed to visit.

    I keep a bottle of bleach water in each of my bathrooms as well as the kitchen.