Nagging Unsanitary Cooks

Dear Helena,
The other day I was at my friend’s house, and he used the dishtowel to mop up a floor spill and then to dry the dishes. When I said something, he got defensive. But I don’t want microscopic dirt and pigeon poop specks in my eggs. If you’re at someone’s house, and they do something gross, what should you do?
—Toxic Breakfast

Dear Toxic Breakfast,
As this thread shows, we have wildly differing views on what constitutes proper food hygiene. Some people wipe down their cutting boards with bleach solution and sterilize their sponges in the microwave. Others toss salads with their hands and let the cat walk on the table. Case in point: A few months ago, I had a party for which I decided to make a croquembouche. While trying to assemble it, I spilled a gallon vat of crème pâtissière on the floor. Some people tried to shovel it in the trash; others claimed the “top layer” was edible and consumed it with relish. (For the sake of my personal dignity, I will not reveal in which group I fell.)

But however much your host’s sloblike ways repulse you, it’s rude to correct him. Yes, it’s gross, but whatever “it” is probably won’t make you ill. So what if he tastes the soup and then sticks the spoon back in the pot. “You typically don’t have a whole lot of pathogenic microorganisms in your mouth, and you’re often putting [the spoon] back into a hot pan, which will kill any microorganisms,” says Sam Beattie, a food safety specialist at Iowa State University.

If less than fastidious hygiene bothers you that much, act as you would when dining at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: Don’t go into the kitchen—or even think about what goes on in there.

There is, however, a very important exception. The biggest culprit of food-borne illness is salmonella, as this report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates. Salmonella comes mainly from improperly prepared meat, poultry, and eggs. So you must intervene if you see him mishandling any of these foods—like cutting vegetables on the same board used to cut up raw chicken without bothering to clean it in between.

But don’t start yelling and yank the board away from him. Instead, quietly offer to help, advises Marisa Bunning, assistant professor of food safety at Colorado State University. For instance say: “Shall I wash the cutting board so I can get rid of the chicken juices for you?”

Because of fears of H1N1 and the like, it’s hard not to become a clean freak, but remember that you can go too far. Marianna Cherry, a San Francisco writer, says: “I have a friend where I walk into her place and I’m immediately told where the Purell is and I feel like a leper.” That sounds awful to me, so you can probably guess which camp I was in on the crème pâtissière incident. Maybe it’s time we all mellowed out and ate something we dropped on the floor.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.