A QUIZ. It is December 8. You have just served turkey tetrazzini from turkey left over from Thanksgiving. The turkey sat out about four hours Thanksgiving Day, then was put into the refrigerator for a few days. Finally it was sliced and frozen. This particular packet was taken from the freezer a couple days ago when you meant to use it, but you forgot and only today got around to cooking it.
Now, as you watch the members of your family begin to take their first bites, doubt assails you. Is the turkey still good or did it spoil during all those unrefrigerated, unfrozen hours? Did you cook it long enough at a high enough temperature? Is it poison? Will it kill you all?
What do you do?
A. Smile at your silly doubts and urge your family to eat heartily.
B. Call the Poison Control Center.
C. Welcome your neighbors in to eat it with you since you have so much.
D. Throw it out immediately.
E. Put the leftovers back into the icebox for another night.
F. Eat a lot yourself so that if your family dies, you won't be alone with your guilt.
If your answers were A, C or E, skip this article and read something amusing. If, however, you answered B, D or F, then welcome to the club. You are not alone. You suffer from the little-discussed but widespread "fear-of-poisoning-your-family" syndrome, unnamed until lately.
I offer myself as exhibit A. Food was something to eat until a fateful day about 10 years ago when I went to Kansas City to attend my grandmother's funeral. I left my husband and two children (2 and 3 years old at the time), well-supplied with instructions, clean clothes, emergency phone numbers and two casseroles -- chicken a la king and spaghetti -- in the refrigerator. Those were my supermother days.
About four days later, I returned, embraced my family and set about fixing dinner. Both casseroles remained, more of the chicken than the spaghetti. I ate the spaghetti -- because I like spaghetti more, that's why! -- and fed the rest of them the chicken.
They began getting sick in the order of the shortest distance between mouth and stomach, the 2-year-old first. All night long,I made vows:
* No more chicken a la king ever.
* No reheating any casserole containing meat and a dairy product. One step short of the very sensible kosher ban on all such combinations.
* To freeze everything not to be instantly eaten.
* When in doubt, throw it out.
My family recovered and forgot all about it. Not me. Doubt and guilt lurk in my kitchen. Every batch of recalled tuna or salmon raises my paranoia another notch. One more warning about canned Belgian vichyssoise and I will probably stop cooking altogether. We can just eat in restaurants, and then if we all die of trichinosis, it won't be my fault.
Guilt, as we know, is counterproductive. It leads to peculiar alterations in husband-wife relationships. Dinner time conversations, which used to go like this:
Husband: "Ummmmmm. Looks good. What is it?"
Wife: "Burrito-Buttermilk Bake."
Husband: "Oh, great!"
Now go like this:
Husband: "Ummmmmm. Looks great. What is it?"
Wife: "Poison, probably. The buttermilk smelled funny."
Husband: "Buttermilk always smells funny."
Wife: "Yeah, but it looked funny, too. Thickish. Sluggish."
Husband: (Impatiently, knowing what's coming) "I'm sure it's fine. Let's eat. I'm hungry."
Wife: (Suddenly positive) "No, I'm sure it's bad." (Grabbing casserole) "It really did look odd. Very, very odd. I can't serve this." (Turning it upside down over the whirling garbage disposal). "There! Gone!"
Husband: (Steaming) "Why did you do that? You wasted perfectly good food and now there's nothing to eat."
Wife: "There's cheese. Anyway, I don't care. I couldn't feed you something that might kill you."
Husband: "I can't stand this!"
Wife: "So, you're still alive, aren't you?" That's the bottom line, of course: They are still alive, even if kept so on an endless parade of cheese sandwiches.
But I'll admit that I do throw out food that is probably all right. Still, it's annoying to have a casserole in front of you one minute, exuding its come-hither scents, and the next to have it churning down the disposal. And yes, I am getting sick of cheese.
Obviously this is one problem that needs to be removed from the realm of subjective judgment and the mercy of one's tendency to guilt. Meal times need to be a time for pleasure, not occasions of peril and alarm.
How can we do this? Simple. Technology. If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they figure out ways to let us know, scientifically and objectively, whether the food in our kitchen is good or not? Why can't we test to determine when a package of chicken thighs has become fatal, or when a pork roast is a skulking killer?
Food needn't be packed with weird things to keep it from spoiling. Perhaps scientists can devise a way to warn us. I humbly offer the following suggestions:
* An indicator: You know those bottles of taco sauce with the picture of a thermometer on the side to tell you how hot they are? Well, what about a special thermometer on containers of food to tell us whether the food has spoiled before we've even opened it? If the food is still edible, the thermometer would be at normal. As the food begins to turn bad, the thermometer would rise into "getting icky but not yet fatal;" and finally: "Warning! Deadly, don't even open, throw directly into the landfill."
* Some sort of litmus test: Instead of having to check your food for scummy slime, odd colors, things that move or smells that knock you to the floor, what about simply sticking a specially treated piece of wood into a casserole, the thigh of a game hen, the center of a package of cream cheese? The stick would variously remain its normal beige color, turn a pale chartreuse or livid green; these hues would mean, oh, say, botulism, salmonella, staphylococcus, etc.
* A taster: Some kind of computerized robotics miracle shaped like a little man -- a friendly little kitchen companion who might also be able to convert kilos to cups, figure out what to put in a casserole when you're out of the sour cream it calls for, and, in response to the question "What shall I fix for dinner?" will -- based on an inventory of your cupboards, a schedule of past meals and a list of your family's favorite dishes -- answer, "pimento-and-shoestring-surprise."
In addition, this little chap could sample food and be programmed to smack his lips with delight, to get a little sick, get violently ill but recover fully if slowly, or die. Of course he wouldn't really get sick or die, just pretend to.
* A vanishing act: Have food melt, evaporate, vaporize or self-destruct as it rots. What's the good of food that keeps its attractive color, its normal scent, its corporeal form if it has become virulent? Food should shrink in proportion to its deadliness. Some cheeses already do this.
In the meantime, I'll continue saving my family by decisive rejections of food--accepting the abuse, the ridicule, the arguments that follow--secure in the knowledge that I'm right. Or at least less wrong than if I went ahead and fed them something dubious. And if wrong, at least guilt-free. And I'll wait for science to devise risk-free food so that I might, once again, serve chicken a la king.