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Science Made Easy

How to avoid bacteria this summer? Don't eat shit.

As any good epidemiologist with a knowledge of food-borne pathogens will tell you, this is the time of year -- July and August -- when cases of food poisoning reach their highest frequency. There are cases caused by salmonella and related species, by the very nasty E. coli 0157:H7 and by campylobacter species. How do you, Mister or Miz J.Q. Public, avoid becoming a statistic?

Over the millennia, humans have tried a number of approaches. In primitive religions, diseases are usually caused by supernatural beings who can be appeased with a gift, say a pair of doves burned on a bronze altar or a nice virgin thrown into a sinkhole. As long as Astarte or Quetzalcoatl is happy with your offering, you and yours stay healthy. When monotheism came along in response to an expanding world, presents went out of fashion. It was understood that whatever happened, happened. Only the Deity knew why. It was your task to accommodate yourself to divine will. Then the Enlightenment took place, and people began figuring out some things, like gravity, and decided that if a little science was good, a lot would be even better.

Can modern science save us from spending 24 hours shitting like a mink and projectile-vomiting after a picnic with our daughter's lacrosse team? Or does the summer heat along the Gulf Coast reduce us all to some pre-Enlightenment status?

The answer is -- maybe.

Consider the Enlightened State of California. There in 1997, the legislature outlawed restaurant dishes containing raw eggs, the source of so many salmonella poisonings in the '90s. That meant the Caesar salad, practically the only culinary gift to the world created in California, was illegal. (Actually, Caesar salad dressing was created by an Italian restaurateur in Tijuana, one Caesar Cardini. He and his brother, Alex, ran a tony joint for thirsty swells during prohibition. The salad caught on with the Hollywood establishment and was copied by restaurant men like Mike Romanoff and Dave Chasen. California made the salad famous. Besides, Mexico has so many great dishes to its credit already.)

The joke on the Golden State's legislature was that its lawmaking was based on so much voodoo. The classic Caesar recipe calls for enough lime juice per egg yolk to kill any salmonella known. The recipe also calls for an entire can of anchovies per six-serving batch of dressing. Any bacteria surviving the citric-acid bath will be fatally dehydrated in such a saline environment. Then the recipe calls for five cloves of garlic. When you crush raw garlic, you create a compound called allicin. This substance kills TB bacteria, anthrax germs and amoebas on contact, and is mighty rough on most other bacteria. Consequently, you can practically use Caesar salad dressing as a disinfectant. The chastened legislature repealed the law in August 1998.

The salmonella bug, in fact, is everywhere. (Except, perhaps, in salmon. The bacteria is named after American doctor Daniel Salmon, who discovered it in a swatch of swine gut in 1885.) All warm-blooded animals normally harbor salmonella species, but normal human gastric juices kill them instantly. So the little devils live downstream, so to speak, and usually are transmitted via feces, not mayonnaise-slathered sandwiches. The same for E. coli. So why do raw-egg preparations, including mayonnaise, which is a mild-mannered cousin of Caesar salad dressing, constantly take the rap for people who have had the bad luck to, literally, eat shit?

Sauce mayonnaise seems to function as a sort of cultural litmus. There is, for instance, an anti-mayonnaise Web site, the Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club at nomayo.com, run by a Hawaiian newspaper columnist named Charles Memminger. It allows people from all over cyberspace to vent their loathing for this classic cold emulsion sauce. One posting announces that "mayonnaise is the BANE OF ALL EXISTENCE and ought to be abolished."

The fear and loathing of mayo may be traced to its whiteness. As a white, mild sauce, it may be incompatible with a lusty, hair-on-the-knuckle, raw-vital proletarian lifestyle. For prole authenticity, you have to pile on the horseradish and coarse-grained mustards.

Avoiding mayonnaise and other raw-egg dressings will not save you from the summer food poisoning minidemic. Appeasing the gastric gods won't work, either. Legislation won't work. You'll just have to go back to trusting in the Lord. And washing yours hands before handling food.

 
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