The kitchen, whether it seems to you a boring or an interesting place to be, at least probably seems benign. But to certain sectors of the public, the kitchen is a veritable definition of danger, a sort of microcosm of the nightmare urban jungle with lacerations, poisonings, crushings, hematomas, punctures and dislocations sneaking around behind the food processor and the refrigerator.
These are the people who gather accident statistics. While looking at the kitchen as one big potential accident can be distracting from the business of fine cuisine, it doesn't hurt to glance in the direction of hazards now and then. In fact, it might even help.
If you were to design a room in which to bring together all the accidental dangers known to humanity, you couldn't do better than the kitchen. Fire, electricity, sharp objects, breakable glass, bacteria, wet floors; all conspire to take advantage of the hapless, careless or just plain stupid user.
Mishaps that occur or have their origin in the kitchen are generally of two types: the exterior type, such as lacerations and electric shocks that occur as a result of badly designed or maintained appliances or general user-klutziness, and the interior type, caused by contaminated food.
In the first category, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has some astonishing numbers. In 1984 there were 1,900 emergency room visits as a result of electric mixer injuries, 3,800 related to gas ranges, 2,500 to microwaves and 5,200 to freezers.
The list of things that can happen to you by refrigerator alone reads like the script of a Rambo movie. Burns, concussions, lacerations, anoxia, hematomas, dislocations, poisoning, punctures and others, including dental injury. In 1984, 22,000 such refrigerator injuries, all of them serious enough for an emergency room visit, were reported.
And you thought the refrigerator just sat there cooling your lettuce.
Most of these injuries aren't the appliances' fault, but belong in the klutz corner -- thousands of lacerations, contusions, strains and sprains every year from people closing the door on their or somebody else's fingers, dropping the meat drawer on their foot or trying to move the whole thing across the room. These numbers go into the refrigerator's column only because there is no column for consumer ineptitude.
But there were also some injuries, a statistical drop in the bucket but of compelling interest if it happens to you or your loved ones, that were much more serious, including poisoning (presumably from fumes) and electric shock.
Electric shock injuries are most likely to be fatal, and although the numbers for kitchen appliances are not large, any fatalities are significant. Everybody has been told by Mother not to stick his or her fingers into the toaster, get any electric appliance near water or fool around with appliances and long, tangled extension cords, and it pays to listen to Mother.
Most appliance cords are short for a reason. Make sure that cords aren't lacerated and that kitchen wiring is up to date. You will hardly ever see dangling cords in professional kitchens, which must conform to safety codes, and all electrical appliances in such kitchens are grounded.
Burns are another major problem, and a look at most professional bakers' forearms will show that if you use an oven you'll sometimes get burned. Professional-quality potholders can help, however, and are available at any restaurant supply house. They are bigger and thicker than conventional potholders, they work when they're damp, and they catch on fire less readily too.
Grease fires, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Fire Department, should be dealt with by "getting the heck out of the house and calling the fire department." They can flare up unexpectedly and quickly. Don't under any circumstances put water on them. One home remedy is to smother the fire with flour, but, according to the fire department, this is risky business.
Appliances other than stoves with exterior surfaces that get hot enough to cause burns should be returned to the store. This is not unusual, especially with cheaper models. A toaster that will set the bag of bread next to it on fire gets too hot and is cause for complaint.
Thousands of people get sick every year from food poisoning of the relatively minor, short-term, cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea type. They blame it on a virus, but often it's from kitchen contamination, usually involving raw meat, poultry, fish or eggs.
The interior of the meat is sterile, but the exterior, especially the skin of an animal, is a haven for bacteria. For that reason raw poultry is particularly notorious. Bacteria are rendered harmless by cooking, but when they get on the knife, the cutting board or the counter they must be washed away or they can cause illness.
If you cut up a chicken, then use the same knife to chop lettuce without washing it in hot water and soap, you transfer the bacteria to a food that will not be cooked and your chances of getting sick increase. As with electric shock, you can get away with this sometimes but not all the time. Ground meat is also especially vulnerable because surface bacteria get distributed throughout in the grinding process and, if you like rare hamburgers, may not be destroyed by heat.
In professional kitchens that fall under federal inspection laws, raw meat and poultry must be worked on and stored separately from cooked products. Water faucets are operated with foot pedals, since the faucet knob is a natural but unsuspected bacteria collector.
Most contamination problems can be solved with detergent and water that feels quite hot to the touch -- about 130 degrees or hotter. And it's better to do the washing right away, especially in the case of wooden cutting boards that can hide bacteria. It's even safer to use dishwasher-proof plastic or rubber cutting boards when working with raw meat, fish or poultry.
So there it is -- refrigerators that shock, ovens that burn, knives that make you sick. And Barry Wax, whose rent-a-professional-kitchen facility called Kitchen Privileges complies with all the federal, state and local health code regulations, adds a caution to the official lists. Absolutely no one who cooks at Kitchen Privileges can wear music-blasting earphones. How could you hear the person coming up behind you, the saute'ing vegetables sizzling angrily or the oven buzzer going off when your head is full of the Rolling Stones?