By the time I was in third grade I knew that mushrooms from a can gave you botulism and just about every other food gave you salmonella.
My mother was a health nut long before it was considered smart to be one. I was raised on homemade bread, yogurt, and fresh vegetables. I was also raised on homegrown, unnatural fear. The healthy part was a good thing. It was the fear that lived inside my mother, dark and strange, much like the dreaded mushrooms that was so dangerous.
Everything my mother didn't prepare herself had the potential to kill. Everyone else's chicken had salmonella lurking in it. Even my Aunt G's. We sat at her table for dinner one evening. My mother leaned over and whispered with great urgency, Don't eat the chicken.
Aunt G's Cornflake crumb chicken was one of my favorite things to eat. My mother gave no explanation, just pursed her lips and shook her head no. I took this to mean that of course something was wrong with it. Perhaps my aunt had undercooked it, or left it out too long. I just knew that I would suffer dire consequences if I ate it. Salmonella, no doubt. It was often salmonella.
We were not like other families who put the milk out on the table at dinner or the cream in a pitcher for coffee. If a guest wanted cream in her coffee, my mother gave her the silver pitcher from the refrigerator and placed it promptly back in. Nothing was allowed to sit at room temperature for even a minute.
Eating out was a problem. My mother took great pride in the fact that she had never set foot inside a McDonald's nor had she ever eaten a take-out pizza. I grew up thinking other families were just careless and if they knew the facts, they would never eat anything from a can or from a dirty restaurant.
My mother made an exception for a restaurant in Skaneateles, N. Y. We made the trip once a year so that she could eat their famous Lobster Newburg to her heart's content. It never occurred to her that someone in their kitchen may have not washed their hands thoroughly. Or maybe she just loved that lobster so much she was willing to push the thoughts out of her mind for just one day.
Sometimes my mother would bring home food and throw it out. I would ask her what happened to the fish or the chicken and she would explain that it sat in the car too long. The grocery store wasn't more than ten minutes away, but in her mind, it had been sitting out too long.
I grew up with a lot of the same food worries. It was ingrained in me that food, in the wrong hands had the potential to kill.
My mother had turned me as nutty as a fruitcake. I was the one in college who didn't want mushrooms on the pizza because well, botulism, of course. I was the one who threw out the package of scallops, much to my housemate's chagrin because I thought they smelled a little off. I knew I had absorbed my mother's neuroses, I just couldn't help myself.
It took many years before I could eat at someone's home without wondering if their mayonnaise was fresh or if their milk was safely in front of the expiration date.
I spent one Christmas at a friend's house. She was my college roommate. She knew my food issues. She deliberately did not tell me until years later that her grandmother's recipe for turkey involved cooking it overnight, stuffed, at 250 degrees. I ate Christmas dinner and lived. I now consider that part of the Christmas miracle because it is common knowledge that bacteria grows at low temperatures, but yes, I ate it and lived.
I'm still careful. Maybe still a little too careful. But I'm approaching normal. I've stopped thinking that every food is potential death on a plate.
This morning the first thing I heard on the Today show was about the outbreak of salmonella in eggs. I'm listening to the symptoms to watch out for. Nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea.
My mother would have thrown the whole carton out whether they matched the recall or not.
I am wavering.