Another bill that’s overdue

I.

The world is being destroyed, no doubt about it, by the greed of the rich and powerful. It is also being destroyed by popular demand.—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Westerville, Ohio, has a tasty new Mexican-food place, a dime a dozen in my native Florida and many other areas but rare here in Yankee land. So last Tuesday I was at the pick-up window waiting for Kathy’s taco salad—I’d gotten my tacos but the kitchen was slammed and had forgotten her order—and watched the preparer throw the salad ingredients in a bowl with her bare hands. Then I noticed that all the workers were using their hands, including the man who appeared to be the manager.

When the harried-looking middle-aged preparer handed me the salad, I said to her, “You really should wear gloves when handling food.”

She said, “I wash my hands all the time. But I am allergic to latex.”

I saw she was angry: a jerk was giving her a hard time. And her life is hard enough already. I never complain and wondered why I had. A self-righteous impulse I’d failed to smother.

The manager darted over and asked me if there was a problem and I repeated my opinion.

“We do wear gloves when we handle raw food,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “But I like your restaurant and I’ve gotten kind of germ phobic.”

In other words: I won’t be back.

He nodded and looked at me keenly. Undoubtedly he was thinking, Germ phobic and a Class A Jerk.

It’s a no-tip joint, but I left a big tip . . .

II.

I am rather germ phobic in middle age. Thankfully I seldom see how other restaurants handle food in their kitchens.

And what about overseas—any place that’s not as nasty neat, on the surface, as America?

This is why God gave me an immune system, right?

But isn’t bare-handed food handling how folks get Hepatitis B? There were incidents years ago, in another town where we lived, with a Taco Bell . . .

If bare hands were a health code violation, however, they wouldn’t be doing it in plain sight, would they?

I asked these questions to a friend who has worked in restaurants, and he sent me excerpts from a 2005 column,Down With Gloves,” in Slate, in which cook Sara Dickerman says

There are too many tasks, too many tickets, and too many unconscious behaviors: I’ve seen gloved hands scratch heads and noses and butts.

For his part, my friend said his experience in working in a state-of-the-art kitchen was that food safety and hand-washing were emphasized and enforced. He added:

I dare say that every steak you’ve ever ordered rare or medium rare had had the grill chef’s thumb on it to judge how done the steak is. It’s the only sure way of knowing how cooked it is. Meat is often cut with gloves and sometimes vegetables, but that’s mainly because you’re less likely to cut yourself. A near miss with a glove cuts the glove, not your hand. The person who prepared all the salads and the dessets, the garde manger, used gloves at his or her discretion. They had a sink within a foot of where they worked and washed their hands between fixing salads and handling egg-intensive desserts. Health rules may vary from state to state and I bet yours are posted online, but I frankly wouldn’t worry about it.

So, duh. Of course your food is going to be handled by human hands if you go to a restaurant! Accept that, or don’t eat out. I must have fallen on my head when I fell off the turnip truck.

My friend added:

What to worry about is how almost anyone in food service doesn’t have health insurance and doesn’t get sick days. Therefore if you get a cold, flu, hepatitis or anything else and stay at home, you lose income. I’ve watched countless chefs with really bad colds or flu bowing their heads to wipe their noses on their sleeves or worse.

That night I kept seeing the weary, agitated look on the face of the poor woman I’d harassed.

 III.

And that night, last Tuesday, the Census Bureau released a report, which I read in the New York Times, that said last year “another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States . . . and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.”

The report said 15.1 percent of Americans now live below the poverty line, including 27 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, 12.1 percent of Asians, and 9.9 percent of whites.

I sense this growing gap between America’s haves and have-nots when I get coffee at a McDonald’s and notice that everyone behind the counter has brown skin. And I always think there’s something wrong with a wealthy nation with its minimum wage set so low that a person can hardly survive or afford medical care while working full-time at two menial jobs.

But I also believe that one day America will have a more humane capitalism. A soft-headed liberal hope: compassionate progress.

And yet I believe it. Looking at humans in evolutionary time has taught me so. We’ll become a kinder nation, I have to believe, but I fear the pain that our next stage of human progress is going to take. Let alone what it’s going to take, in the fullness of time, for all humans to live as members of one global village. Yes, another liberal fantasy, but remember I’m talking about a time scale almost geologic.

Meantime, I hope that your beloved child does not receive, at a takeout window from some unseen illegal immigrant from Guatemala, a side order of tuberculosis with her burrito.

But, rest assured, whether you get a disease with your meal or merely endure awful service, it’s management’s fault. Behind every tired, inept, or angry waitstaff is a stupid, venal, or absent franchise owner or shift boss.

Related this week: “A mother’s war on germs at fast-food playlands” in the New York Times.

 

 

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12 Comments

Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE

12 responses to “Another bill that’s overdue

  1. UGH. Well, I’m not a germophobe, but I did recently suffer some serious food poisoning from an undercooked burger. Least amount of fun I’ve ever had.

    I have no faith in humanity. If I did, I’d probably be less sad. But I do wonder how I was lucky enough to land a cushy, good-paying job while others are trying to find any kind of work. And I think my daughter will be even luckier.

    So I guess I’m actually optimistic. I’m just mostly too tired to admit it.

    • From that 2005 Slate column:

      “According to the CDC, food-borne diseases cause about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. It’s likely that the last “stomach flu” you contracted had something to do with something you ate. Disease-causing bacteria and viruses—Norwalk virus, E. coli, shigella, hepatitis A, and Staphylococcus aureus, among others—can be transmitted by dirty hands, and most localities now prohibit (or at least discourage) cooks from touching “ready-to-eat food.”

  2. David C. Bailey

    Great post and so what if it’s a little off-topic. What’s a blog for if not to get on your soap box now and then. As a food writer, I’ve had food poisoning many a time, once from chicken in my favorite Cocoa barbecue restaurant, so bad I was too weak to drive for several days. Another time, I got them from tuna burgers. I always call the restaurant and notify them that I got sick. Most times, I call the health inspector. The guy who answered the phone at the place that cooked the tuna burgers said, “Oh yeah, everybody knows not to eat them.” I reported what he said to the health department.

  3. theexile

    Another great post. Food safety was something I was thinking about last night listening to a radio show: one of the hosts had called in sick with norovirus, a food-borne illness that causes vomiting and diarrhea. When the host called into the show later to describe it, he said it was the worst he ever felt and it is highly contagious. His description of his symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) reminded me of an illness that me, my wife and her daughters shared over the course of a week last year about this time (the virus takes about 48 hours for symptoms to develop and when they do it’s a simultaneous assault at both ends.)

    Then after reading your post, I began to think about the bravado Anthony Bourdain shows on No Reservations, not only sampling strange foods, but often eating from street vendors all over the world. Then again Bourdain fortifies himself with lots of alcohol and we rarely get a glimpse backstage and who knows how often Bourdain has the trots or is heaving into the toilet.

    And then I thought about my own kitchen and cooking: how often do I start cooking and as I wait for something to heat sit at my desk and surf the Net—computer keyboards are notoriously nasty–and not scald my hands in soapy hot water before checking on my food. How many things do we do when cooking like scratch ourselves, blow our noses or cough without thinking about it or washing our hands?

  4. Claire

    Interesting connection between hygiene in restaurants and health care. I like the angle, Dad.

  5. I appreciate your optimism, Richard, but a continuing progression toward a more compassionate and just world is hard to believe right now.

  6. “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” ~ Zelda Fitzgerald

  7. One reason Buck and I seldom eat out is his serious hearing impairment. When people talk and guffaw, clatter dishes, and discordant music blares, his hearing aids shut down to protect his ears. Seriously. Another reason is that I’ve gotten squeamish when I see “diners” who seem to be in a fast-eating contest. I’ve seen many servers sighing over the messes left by adults. Revolting.

    Reading your post, though, now I wonder if our lack of colds, flu, stomach viruses, et al for at least the past 10 years has something to do with the fact that most of our meals are home-prepared.

    By the way, Richard, you should remove my former blog, Switched At Birth, from your blogroll (thank you for having it there!). It has been officially and irrevocably retired. I’m mostly writing offline now, but am doodling around at a new just for fun site I’m calling (the hungry) Writer’s Kitchen. It’s at WordPress, http://thewriterskitchen.wordpress.com. You know how it is when you write about food (and I know for sure David Bailey does): sometimes it’s actually about food.

  8. Thanks for the insight. It was a very good read.

  9. “To love abundantly is to live abundantly, and to love forever is to live forever.” ~ Henry Drummond