The world is being destroyed, no doubt about it, by the greed of the rich and powerful. It is also being destroyed by popular demand.—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community
Westerville, Ohio, has a tasty new Mexican-food place, a dime a dozen in my native Florida and many other areas but rare here in Yankee land. So last Tuesday I was at the pick-up window waiting for Kathy’s taco salad—I’d gotten my tacos but the kitchen was slammed and had forgotten her order—and watched the preparer throw the salad ingredients in a bowl with her bare hands. Then I noticed that all the workers were using their hands, including the man who appeared to be the manager.
When the harried-looking middle-aged preparer handed me the salad, I said to her, “You really should wear gloves when handling food.”
She said, “I wash my hands all the time. But I am allergic to latex.”
I saw she was angry: a jerk was giving her a hard time. And her life is hard enough already. I never complain and wondered why I had. A self-righteous impulse I’d failed to smother.
The manager darted over and asked me if there was a problem and I repeated my opinion.
“We do wear gloves when we handle raw food,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “But I like your restaurant and I’ve gotten kind of germ phobic.”
In other words: I won’t be back.
He nodded and looked at me keenly. Undoubtedly he was thinking, Germ phobic and a Class A Jerk.
It’s a no-tip joint, but I left a big tip . . .
I am rather germ phobic in middle age. Thankfully I seldom see how other restaurants handle food in their kitchens.
And what about overseas—any place that’s not as nasty neat, on the surface, as America?
This is why God gave me an immune system, right?
But isn’t bare-handed food handling how folks get Hepatitis B? There were incidents years ago, in another town where we lived, with a Taco Bell . . .
If bare hands were a health code violation, however, they wouldn’t be doing it in plain sight, would they?
I asked these questions to a friend who has worked in restaurants, and he sent me excerpts from a 2005 column, “Down With Gloves,” in Slate, in which cook Sara Dickerman says
There are too many tasks, too many tickets, and too many unconscious behaviors: I’ve seen gloved hands scratch heads and noses and butts.
For his part, my friend said his experience in working in a state-of-the-art kitchen was that food safety and hand-washing were emphasized and enforced. He added:
I dare say that every steak you’ve ever ordered rare or medium rare had had the grill chef’s thumb on it to judge how done the steak is. It’s the only sure way of knowing how cooked it is. Meat is often cut with gloves and sometimes vegetables, but that’s mainly because you’re less likely to cut yourself. A near miss with a glove cuts the glove, not your hand. The person who prepared all the salads and the dessets, the garde manger, used gloves at his or her discretion. They had a sink within a foot of where they worked and washed their hands between fixing salads and handling egg-intensive desserts. Health rules may vary from state to state and I bet yours are posted online, but I frankly wouldn’t worry about it.
So, duh. Of course your food is going to be handled by human hands if you go to a restaurant! Accept that, or don’t eat out. I must have fallen on my head when I fell off the turnip truck.
My friend added:
What to worry about is how almost anyone in food service doesn’t have health insurance and doesn’t get sick days. Therefore if you get a cold, flu, hepatitis or anything else and stay at home, you lose income. I’ve watched countless chefs with really bad colds or flu bowing their heads to wipe their noses on their sleeves or worse.
That night I kept seeing the weary, agitated look on the face of the poor woman I’d harassed.
And that night, last Tuesday, the Census Bureau released a report, which I read in the New York Times, that said last year “another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States . . . and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.”
The report said 15.1 percent of Americans now live below the poverty line, including 27 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, 12.1 percent of Asians, and 9.9 percent of whites.
I sense this growing gap between America’s haves and have-nots when I get coffee at a McDonald’s and notice that everyone behind the counter has brown skin. And I always think there’s something wrong with a wealthy nation with its minimum wage set so low that a person can hardly survive or afford medical care while working full-time at two menial jobs.
But I also believe that one day America will have a more humane capitalism. A soft-headed liberal hope: compassionate progress.
And yet I believe it. Looking at humans in evolutionary time has taught me so. We’ll become a kinder nation, I have to believe, but I fear the pain that our next stage of human progress is going to take. Let alone what it’s going to take, in the fullness of time, for all humans to live as members of one global village. Yes, another liberal fantasy, but remember I’m talking about a time scale almost geologic.
Meantime, I hope that your beloved child does not receive, at a takeout window from some unseen illegal immigrant from Guatemala, a side order of tuberculosis with her burrito.
But, rest assured, whether you get a disease with your meal or merely endure awful service, it’s management’s fault. Behind every tired, inept, or angry waitstaff is a stupid, venal, or absent franchise owner or shift boss.
Related this week: “A mother’s war on germs at fast-food playlands” in the New York Times.