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Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

 

Where'd That Come From?
More Reasons to Cook at Home

by Kate Heyhoe

 

The woman with eleven fingers had five on each hand, and one in her bowl—not a crispy chicken finger or a dainty Lady Finger cookie, or a cutesy nibble from the finger food menu. Chef

In Northern California, Anna Ayala, dining at a Wendy's in March 2005, found a piece of a human finger in her chili. Or so she claimed. Now, authorities believe it was all a shameless scam. If convicted of grand larceny, as one headline put it, Ayala may have bitten off more than she can chew.

But her initial claim joined a parade of lawsuits to hit restaurants these days, and the Wendy's chain handled the claim with swift attention and diligence. Wendy's scrutinized their own internal food handling process. They also investigated whether the wandering digit may have come from one of their suppliers, perhaps in the chopped meat used to make the chili, which was the next logical step in tracking down culpability. Nothing in theirs or the police investigations pointed to the finger being a part of the Wendy's food service process.

Nevertheless, the incident raises a number of issues regarding supply lines. Food safety is not just about restaurant kitchens, but how and where the food is grown, raised, harvested, prepared, and transported, all before ever reaching the walk-in fridges and freezers at all restaurants, including white linen establishments.

Granted, most of the meals we're served are perfectly safe, and no restaurant profits by dishing up tainted food. But many consumers don't realize the degree to which restaurants depend on outside vendors to provide both raw ingredients, ranging from abalone to eggs to zucchini, to a host of industrial "convenience food" products. These conveniences can include packages of ready-to-cook lobster-stuffed ravioli and cordon-bleu-style stuffed chicken breasts, and such items as ready-to-serve guacamole, triple-layered chocolate desserts, and bags of pre-washed spinach.

Many chains are reacting to consumer lawsuits, like the Wendy's finger incident, by taking aim at their suppliers. Besides flesh-food fights, produce-linked epidemics have ruined many patrons' health and killed at least one restaurant chain, Chi-Chi's. At a Chi-Chi's in Pennsylvania in 2003, Mexican green onions sparked the largest outbreak of hepatitis A in this country's history. Three people died, 600 more became ill, and Chi-Chi's went out of business. Ready-to-eat lettuce was another food threat at a California restaurant, a Pat & Oscar's franchise, sickening more than forty unsuspecting diners.

In the Chi-Chi's episode, according to Nation's Restaurant News, the contamination originated in the field, where green onions became infected with a virus that is impervious to washing. The produce was grown in Mexico, and distributed by US suppliers, including the giant corporation, Sysco. In the lettuce fiasco, health officials blamed a company known as Gold Coast Produce for unsanitary conditions (standing pools of water, inadequate toilet and hand washing facilities) where the ready-to-eat lettuce was processed and packaged. Another possible cause of contamination: E.coli from floodwaters at Chinn Farms where the lettuce was grown, yet another company in the overall supply chain. Feces from wild animals enter rivers, and when floodwaters rise, can contaminate neighboring farmers' fields. Other examples, including two food service-related deaths at a retirement community (from tainted bagged spinach), keep cropping up.

Just as restaurants need suppliers they can trust, we as consumers need to take a measure of care in the foods we buy. Few of us can be completely self-sufficient, raising our own crops and animals and controlling every step from raw to prepared. And I don't suggest you avoid eating out: it's part of the joy of life.

But you can reduce health risks when cooking at home by knowing and controlling the ways your foods are stored and handled within your kitchen, and observing food safety practices. You can also shop at farmers' markets, where you buy directly from the source, from farmers who eat their own foods. Find out about the farmers' growing conditions and feeding practices. Remember: The fewer the middlemen in the food chain, the less opportunities for your food to become contaminated.

Cooking from scratch, as opposed to eating restaurant and convenience foods, doesn't mean being a slave to the kitchen. For example, I can fiddle for hours with whole, ground and toasted spices, fresh and dried herbs, and exotic seasonings from here to Timbuktu (literally), and I have an almost overabundant array of spices and seasonings at my disposal. Yet, sometimes salt and pepper alone, with a touch of olive oil, are all I use to roast, grill, or sauté chicken, pork, beef, or fish, thereby intensifying the natural flavors and emphasizing simplicity over fuss and muss. Likewise, the finest chefs know that a simple steamed vegetable, fresh from farm to kitchen, is about as perfect a dish as you can get. Salads, with just a light drizzle of good-quality oil and vinegar or splash of citrus, balance rich dishes and tingle the palate. Don't forget the sea salt.

Wholesome cooking at home need not be demanding, boring, or time-consuming. The recipes below are full of flavor and short on time and effort. And when you cook from scratch, at least you know what ingredients do, and don't, make it into the pot.

Quick and Easy Recipes

 

Copyright © 2005, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

 


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