Monday, July 19, 2010

On Food Angst...

HALLIE: My mother-in-law wouldn't eat chicken skin. Something about salmonella, or maybe it was the fat. She visited us in Boston every few months, and in between she sent cautionary clippings. One was about the perils of eating undercooked chopped meat; another time it was an article warning against cancer-causing hydrocarbons in grilled foods. I'd read each one with a patronizing chuckle. We ate our hamburger pink, not raw, and surely the four or five barbecues we had each summer weren't going to kill us.

Those were the good old days when I felt pretty
smug about how I fed my family--a balanced diet, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and very little packaged food.

Now I'm not so sure. Fish is always on my list, tasty and touted as it is for heart health. It's old news that swordfish and tuna are loaded with mercury; turns out farm-raised salmon are riddled with PCBs, dioxins, and insecticides.

Chicken is an old standby now that we've cut back on red meat. Then I read chicken has three to four times more arsenic than other poultry or meat.

If I give up chicken and meat and fish, I might as well go vegetarian. Sprouts and tofu? Hold on. Raw seed sprouts provide an ideal breeding environment for salmonella bovismorbificans. Apparently, this nasty bug causes diarrhea, vomiting, and can even spread to the blood and cause arthritis and heart problems. And many of the soy products on the market today are made from genetically-engineered soy beans. Frankenfood or perfectly safe? Remember, it took them more than forty years to admit the flaws in all that rosy research touting the health benefits of hormone repl
acement therapy.

And don't they irradiate strawberries?

Does paranoia take root in midlife, or has food shopping really turned into a stroll through a minefield?

JAN: When I was a health reporter for the Providence Journal, we used to get together for meetings on the next section and ask: OKAY, how can we scare people?? We were joking of course, but we knew the stuff we were writing always put a damper on everything.

When I was in my brother's kitchen and told him to wash the cantaloupe before cutting it because of all the bacteria that could be on the skin, he turned to me and said: "That's it. It's time for you to quit that job."

And I did.

You've got to be sensible, but really, fear of everything is a worse problem than a little salmonella poisoning. .

HANK: Oh, Jannie, but you're so right about the cantaloupe. I do that, too. But I've done SO MANY stories
about food poisoning, restaurant inspections, food safety, cafeteria inspections--and all all all the inspectors talk about--is temperature. They take the temp of everything. There's a range of temp that's not-hot-not-cold where bacteria love to grow. And they say, that's what'll get you. So I'm constantly putting things in the refrigerator and worrying about food temps.

And I would never store raw chicken above anything in the fridge. And I'm scrupulous about raw chicken and cutting boards.

But I eat rare steak and hamburger. And grill out. I have a pal who works in risk assessment at a lo
cal school of public health...he says, the MOST ordinary-dangerous thing people do to harm their health is: NOT wash their hands.

ROBERTA: I agree, washing a cantaloupe is still a good idea Jan! I get my food scares from my sister, who's always ahead of me in that department. She advises washing fruit in vinegar and water to get off the pesticides. Especially things like strawberries.

Last week I was down in Florida visiting my father. We took half a day road trip to go scalloping in the gulf. There was a sign up by the boat launch saying t
here was a bacteria advisory. Did we turn around? No we did not. And by the way, if anything would turn me into a vegetarian, it might be swimming around scooping up those gorgeous creatures with a rim of sparkling blue eyes. And then having to scrape the guts out of each one--hours and hours of disgusting work! I couldn't face eating them for dinner when we got home so we ordered a pizza:).

ROSEMARY: Which is why we should eat chocolate.

According to you guys, I should be dead by now. I don't think I've ever washed a cantaloupe in my life. But I wash my hands more than Lady Macbeth, never touch the handrail on an escalator if I can help it, use my foot to flush a public toilet, etc. - have I told you more than you needed to know?

My particular food bugaboo has to do with the age of leftovers. After one day I have to be really hungry (and lazy.)

RHYS: Ro--you sound just like my husband John. Hand washing, not touching toilet doors etc. Obsessive about rinsing chicken, soaking in salt water, patting dry etc. I'm also pretty strict on chicken--not using same cutting board for chicken and veg. I do worry about fish because I LOVE it and I will only buy fish caught around US, Canada or countries where they don't pour pollutants into the ocean. I love going to the local farmer's market and buying organic everything and I keep promising that I will spend more and buy only organic beef from happy, grass fed cows. I'm in England at the moment and I have to say the food tastes better--eggs from local chickens, beef from cows in fields, and veggies picked that morning.

I am fantasizing about living in a village and going to buy eggs and veg every morning. But I'll probably go back to the convenience of Safeway.

HALLIE: I was once writing a piece about food and went on a shopping expedition with a nutritionist and food safety expert. A few pieces of advice have stuck with me. Eat whole grains. Less salt and fat, more calcium. And wash the cantaloupe before cutting into it.


  1. So much of this is solved when you buy from farmers you know (or grow your own, of course). I realize that isn't feasible on a large scale, but we are lucky in New England to have lot of small farms nearby, and farmers markets in the cities. I suppose their melons still might have bacteria on the skin, but the risks are fewer.

    We now buy all our chicken and meat from a local farm, too, so we know the animals weren't mistreated. But I still haven't gotten around to separating my cutting boards. And frankly, I don't worry about it that much. Now mayonnaise at a picnic - never touch the stuff!


  2. I have a cantaloupe on my counter now and it's starting to look like a giant petri dish

  3. This reminds me of the problem that our children face. Parents of our generation have been manic about keeping their little darlings safe, dosing them with antibiotics at the first sniffle, keeping them away from dirt, and so on. The result? Kids with more allergies and little resistance to infections, because they've never built up any immunities.

    Moderation in all things! And buy local if you can.

  4. We lived in Mali and in Burkina Faso for a year each when my children were younger (2 and 5, then 9 and 12). Now there, you have to be REALLY Careful. Any fruit or veggie you can't peel or cook gets soaked in a chlorine solution. This does not do good things to strawberries and lettuce. You boil and filter all water. Never use ice cubes when you're out. So, for me, living in this country just feels much safer, foodwise. On the other hand, all meats and produce there are always locally grown.

  5. My mother is phobic about food, too, especially left-overs and foods past their expiration date. I'm careful re chicken and washing fruits and veggies, but I've been known to eat yogurt that's a couple months past the expiration date (if it wasn't opened) and just this week ate hummus that expired in April, but had never been open. I do a sniff test and use a bit of common sense. (Don't tell my mom!)
    PS: My verification word just now was "interme." Wait 'til I'm dead, please.

  6. See, I knew there was a reason I didn't like cantaloupe. We're fairly lax at our place--I think we've grown up challenging our immune systems enough because back then, there were no anti-bacterial soaps that created monster germs, and simple hand-washing was good enough. If a bug landed on our plates, my dad would simply say, "He doesn't eat much."

  7. Hallie, as I remember there was a funny picture of you juggling cantaloupes or cabbages or something to go along with that article.

    Eat local, buy local, that all makes sense. But Laura, no way I would eat a yogurt 2 months past prime!

  8. I love using a favorite food as a character trait for my protagonists. In my book, A CORNER OF UNIVERSE, the protagonist is a nut about dark chocolate. Like me. :) In my WIP, my protagonist is a coffee freak. As for me, I love to eat and buy local whenever I can!

  9. I will confess to being extremely careful about chicken, and washing my hands when I cook - which is just sensible. Also I have not eaten a mayonaisse since I was five years old and I'm not crazy about salad bars where five thousand people lean over the produce before they select.

    But otherwise, I'm with Laura. Except for milk -- those expiration dates are merely guidelines, you have to sniff.

    Also a friend of mine is a pediatrician and she said you can pretty much ignore expiration dates on most medications.

  10. We had a such a Seinfeld moment this weekend. My stepson Paul opened some skim milk, and poured into his coffee.
    It separated.
    Oh, I said, dump it out.
    No, Jonathan said, just stir it and it'll be fine.
    Hank: So you're going to try to hide how spoiled it is?
    J: If it stirs in, it's not spoiled.
    Paul: It's probably fine.
    J: (Stirs the milk into the coffee.) See, it's fine!
    Hank: It's not fine. Gimme that coffee.
    Jonathan: (Holding out the milk carton to me) Smell this!
    Hank: Heavens no! Why would I want to smell it?
    J: To see if it's bad.
    H: If you have to ask, its bad.
    J: It doesn't smell bad to me.
    H: (Dumps out the coffee. Dumps out the milk.) Get another container of milk from the fridge, okay?
    Paul: Is there more coffee?

  11. I do swear by the sniff test, too. But Hank, I'd have tossed that cream even if it smelled ok. It shouldn't separate.

    So is chocolate that's turned white on the outside (not white chocolate) ok to eat? I hope so... it smelled fine.

  12. Of course! That's what I mean. Why sniff obviously bad milk?

    White stuff on chocolate. Doesn't it just mean it's old?

  13. How about half and half or cream that separates a WEEK or TWO before its expiration date ---

    It's not sour, but what gives?? Anyone know?

  14. That's SEPARATING...not curdling. Two different things, but we use the same word ("separate") to describe. I think the cream separating thing is about the different densities. You know, with some whole milk yogurts the creamer stuff sits on top? Mix oil and vinegar they separate, too.

  15. I've been taking my grandkids around Britain, visiting a lot of old castles and abbeys, including living history exhibits. It's a wonder our ancestors survived at all with what they ate and drank: hanging the occasional piece of meat in the rafters so that the rats couldn't get at it? Cutting off slices untli it was all gone? And nobody drank water because they knew it made you sick so children were given ale.
    Maybe we're now over paranoid.