I was ravenous by the time I arrived to meet my friend Helmut for lunch at our favourite cafe last week. He had chosen a table near a window through which sunlight streamed; as we waited for our food, mesmeric microparticles of dust scintillated all around. Lunch arrived while Helmut was preoccupied with his phone. And then, his nose rippled. Before he had a chance to clap a napkin over his mouth, he erupted with a magnificent sneeze that atomised in a moist firework over our untouched plates, like little dirty jokes on hallowed ground. Paralysed with disgust, I sat still while Helmut continued showering me, though this time, it was with apologies. After a few moments, he put a fork to his food and began to eat. I leaned close.
"You know I can't eat this now, right?" I asked, pointing to my plate. "Oh, come on," he said. "Grow up. That food came out of an industrial kitchen. It wasn't exactly sterile to begin with." I wish I'd requested a take-out container, scraped my enchiladas into it, and given them to Helmut. But what really happened was that neither of us wanted the food, and I left the cafe feeling hungry, wasteful and totally pathetic.
My mother is a brilliant pragmatist. Two of her favourite aphorisms, though frequently applied to food, often extend far beyond its realm, and I brandish them ad nauseam: "You don't know where that's been!" and "Waste is a terrible thing". At lunch with Helmut, I was caught in the mire of a nightmarish trifecta of wanting to avoid communicable disease, waste and ridicule in equal measure. As anyone who blithely drinks tap water in Mexico on a whim and a prayer, or camps amongst grizzly bears in the heart of the Yukon will tell you: great rewards, including culinary ones, require great risks. Call it phobic, call it self-protective, call it neurotic, or call it good sense, but the threat of "cooties", those elusive and imaginary agents of ickiness, makes my skin crawl. This is somewhat embarrassing, so let me be clear: I'm not a die-hard mysophobe. That said, nothing kills my appetite faster than a renegade fork pawing at my food, except, perhaps, someone sneezing on it first.
We live in a world of paranoid sterility, and when not cornered by self-doubt, it's one I have been known to mock. Convinced that our fair city's air lends a certain je ne sais quoi to lamb sandwiches, I was crestfallen when Abu Dhabi's shawarma vendors were told to pack up their spits and move them indoors. I turn up my nose at antibacterial soaps, and used to say that what distinguishes a "dirty" restaurant from a "clean" one is whether or not the omnipresent cockroaches are in plain view of the dining room.
When it comes to food, what is that can really make us sick, besides our own finicky nature? Foodborne pathogens pose a legitimate health risk, but some of our knee-jerk reactions, if not overblown, might be misguided. Revolt can be a function of mind over matter, and what we perceive as our guts saying "no" is actually our brains saying "yuck". Many people will eat factory-farmed eggs without a second thought, but shudder at the thought of dining on (organic) offal. And though meat, chicken, fish and their byproducts are often implicated, they're not the only culprits. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, leafy greens have caused 363 outbreaks and 13,568 cases of foodborne illness in the US. Contaminated water, contact with livestock and poor handling practices are among the ways that greens can become tainted.
Conditions such as mad cow disease, a result of cattle being fed remnants of other cattle, are examples of how technology has long provided ways of farming that are counter-intuitive to our health and the health of our animals. Last year, after E coli bacteria traced to packaged spinach killed three people and made another 200 sick, the US federal government began allowing producers of leafy greens to irradiate their products in order to extend shelf life and cut back on foodborne diseases. And though people have been eating irradiated meat for years, our food system now requires irradiation in order to eat something as prosaic as iceberg lettuce. And this won't be the first time such a technique has been used on food.
Good hygiene practices are imperative before, during and after food preparation, and unfortunately, it's not as simple as slipping on a pair of gloves. I've walked away from many a sandwich shop where a vendor was wiping her face or counting change with gloved hands, but will gladly eat from an ungloved vendor whose station and personal upkeep meet my inspection standards. The heebie-jeebies can be our best ally and our worst enemy.
From a public-health perspective, frequent hand washing is considered the first line of defence, but other pillars of food safety include proper food defrosting, handling, preparation and storage. There's also a wild card, which can include anything from environmental toxins to accidental cross-contamination from a cutting board. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 76 million cases of "food poisoning" in the US each year -and 5,000 of them are fatal.
I've never had food poisoning. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I'd rather eat at a restaurant with visible rodents than take a bite of an ailing friend's sandwich. I believe in calculated risks: no poisonous fugu (blowfish) marathons for me, however potent the adrenalin surge. And when some friends went foraging and came back with bags of "wild mushrooms", I said no thanks, then volunteered to keep 999 on speed dial for them while I watched them eat "morel" crépes.
Suddenly a little sneeze doesn't seem like such a bad thing.