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AUGUST 19, 2010 9:56AM

A Different Kind of Eating Disorder

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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.  



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Oatmeal sounds just right this morning.
OMG! I think I married your mother! Or perhaps her son? Did she have any illegitimate offspring before you? Think about it and get back to me.....I have to go wash my hands..:) Awesome, Joan....again!
I heard that too. I have one here that is like that with milk and condiments.
I don;t know how you do it..:)
Rated with hugs
We are all a product of our upbringing! My mother would never use spices and ketchup was not allowed. When I was first married, I made dinner and my husband was looking all over for salt, pepper, ketchup-yes, I didn't buy them because I didn't realize most people used them in their meals! R
This sure would have been a tough one to grow up with. Food safety is important, but aside from getting tasters for every meal, like old-time royalty, I don't know the solution. (And even then, the tasters would have to wait 12-72 hours before the onset of symptoms!) I'm pretty sure that a lot of common sense food handling practices protect you from most problems. But yeah, I have been known to throw out perfectly good jars of mayonnaise just because they've been around "too long".
I'm one of those that believe the human body has an incredible ability to fend for itself. We encounter an amazing amount of bad stuff every day and manage to keep on ticking. Eat those eggs!!! Just cook them right!
I've been a vegetarian for many decades, and used to feel a wee bit smug about the salmonella thing, until the great peanut butter and salsa debacles. It's everywhere. Contracting salmonella seems to be the new I could get hit by a runaway bus at any moment. Might as well eat that egg, Joan.
My father's mom was nearly as skeptical of foods as your mom. I am amazed my dad is as normal as he is. :) r.
Thrilled that this was not my childhood. Just sayin'.
This made me laugh, mostly because my mother was about as far from yours as is humanly possible. When I think about the length of time things sat out at room temperature, or on the front porch when it was surely over 40 degrees outside, it's a wonder we didn't all die. But, I seem to have the proverbial cast-iron stomach, so maybe it strengthened me.

Wow. In a sense, I have the opposite problem - our family was short on food for a number of years, and made due with what was available. To my knowledge, we never got food poisoning, but there were any number of "questionable" ingredients used at any given time. I've gotten much better at recognizing when something is "off" - mostly because my wife and kid have pointed out the risks.
1) The one thing she chose to eat out was seafood. Hmmmm, that one certainly defies logic. 2) I love your college roommate. 3) Keep the eggs, but don't drink egg nog.

Great writing, Joan. Loved it as usual!
Joan ..loved your write here! I have a husband like your Mom, he is a sweetheart, but milk has to be poured in our glasses and immediately returned to the fridge. Being raised in Africa, and never fully knowing what you are eating, I was quite the opposite of hubby. Over 40 yrs now, he has won me over, although he doesn't think! Half of flu that folks get is food poisoning..saw a show on it a few yrs ago, and who wants flu? So being careful is not a bad thing. Having worked in food industry, I would not eat in most eating establishments. (We eat healthy and don't eat out much anyhow, but this caustious fellow does crave Mc Donalds ..ick!
Love your style of writing, was very had me laughing!
Oh my goodness. The only concerns about food we had in our family was how many seconds it could sit on the floor when dropped before it was deemed unsanitary! My grandmother saved and reused bacon drippings for what seemed like years. Needless to say, I am not squeamish about food. However, I did consider tossing out these four eggs I have. LOL!
You survived your mother's insanity and lived to tell stories about it as well as you do here are comforting to those of us who have had issues with our mothers.
I grew up in a family with three brothers, and food never lasted long enough to spoil. He were all very wary, however, of my mother's homemade canned goods. She didn't follow proper USDA procedures, and I wouldn't go near her jarred peaches or jam. Good thing she never canned mushrooms.
you make me smile. food phobias. boys are having them now you know....boys are being diagnosed with anorexia.

we have a family member with food issues. big ones. maybe I'll write about it some day because the whole food thing started in one place and has metamorphosed into something else, something big and monstrous...the member has woven a huge soft crazy cocoon around another issue and the whole business has become like a factory of crazy food.

fortunately we are a family of foodies, big time. many of us were in the industry and/or are great cooks/bakers, etc. and the children LOVE food, love eating and I don't want to say reject the extreme view of food, but remain food lovers and will eat damn near anything. which is good.

but only in this country...I forget which comedian pointed out, only in America do we have these issues. in third world countries, someone puts food in front of you, you eat it!
Wow, Joan. That's whack. Did your mom have a bad experience that caused her to be so overly concerned about botulism, salmonella, etc.?

I don't think I'm particularly paranoid but I am a bit of a stickler for expiration dates, which used to cause some measure of debate between my ex and me.

Have you ever seen "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain? If you see some of the weird food that he bangs down, that carton of eggs in the fridge would look completely benign.

Thanks for another great post!
i had mushroom tea in college :)

all that healthy homemade stuff you had growing up sounds like love to story!
I'd like to talk about this some more. A close family memeber, whom I love dearly, has similar issues. There are others- including myso(germ)phobia. Her behaviors have all the trappings 0f OCD. It is a very difficult situation and hard to live with. Do you care to talk about how you eventually overcame these fears? Is anyone else dealing with this?
I think a lot of people have bizare phobias when it comes to food and your Mom had one. And we do inherit our parents fears and have to overcome them on our own. Thanks for reminding me.
Dear Lord, your mother was the ServSafe poster child! After doing half of my online course I am afraid to eat anything...and they make a huge big deal about taking things out of refrigeration only long enough to get the necessary portion, or putting it on ice. So she was right about the cream. On the other hand, you have to take a few risks to live a worthwhile life, right?
when i was a kid, the only thing we wouldn't eat if it sat out too long was potato salad on a picnic table. but then everything else was cooked to death, so i'm sure the bacteria were, too. growing up without any food 'issue' has its consequences, though, joanie: you're thin and willowy and i'm, well, sturdy.

and even i threw the eggs out. i'll do anything to avoid throwing up.
very very much my mom too! Again, so terrifically written! Thanks and congratulations, Joan!!! r
I have sweet memories of The Krebs, and their incredible cooking. I can understand why your mom would feel safe about eating there.
Oh, Joan, how I can relate. I was twenty before I tasted mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise. Mom didn't approve so we didn't eat the stuff. For years, if I ate spaghetti anywhere but home, I insisted that the server wash the sauce off because only mom used good ingredients. I can't tell you how many meals ended up being a bowl of lettuce -- minus the dressing if it came in a bottle. I guess it's true -- we are what we eat!
Love this. My mother would inspect the windows of a cafe or restaurant before we could eat there. If they weren't sparkling clean, we moved on. Recently, I read a report that showed; if a restaurant has dirty windows, it probably isn't a sanitary place to eat. Another one for you, Mom.

I am so opposite from your mom. Sometimes I don't even follow the three second rule. I think this makes for a stronger constitution. I very rarely get sick. Loved your story. Thank God most of survive our childhoods and are able to build good lives for ourselves. -R-
So this is what's up with my mother-in-law! I could never figure out why she won't eat anything anywhere except her own home...not even at her daughter's houses...
Gosh, I'm sorry about this Joan, fear can be so debilitating....but even I thought about throwing out my organic eggs from nowhere near Iowa this morning. : )
Oh what we do to our children...r
The oatmeal might be okay, as long as the little brown marks are not rodent turds. I know you will look. Lots of little cupboard things like to get into the oatmeal during hot weather. Your mother would pass out cold if she knew she liked to eat at a place recommended by Lea.
So ...
I'm guessing you don't want to come over for a toasted salmon salad.

p.s. btw, she was right about Mac Donald's ...
very honest post. My mother was very careful about this, being a nurse (who presumably had seen a lot of foodborne illnesses), and I think she was rather uptight but nothing like this! I'm still more careful than most people I know, but I try not to get crazy about it.

It amazed me to read a while ago that you can actually keep opened mayo in the cupboard, not the fridge. Mayo was always a great source of concern in our house growing up!
Enjoyed the post and the portrait you paint of your mother. A friend's mother is the polar opposite: She serves bad food. Not just bad food . . . BAD food. Child of the Depression, nothing is too far gone to throw out. And she expects people to eat it!
This is so interesting. My mother had some major food issues too. I responded by having the OPPOSITE food issues, no healthier or less crazy, but different, dammit. Glad to hear you're at least *approaching* normal.
I love this post, Joan - one of your best. I grew up in a home where cleanliness was paramount - washing hands before meals, washing every fruit before eating, keeping milk and yogurt in the fridge, etc - but nothing like your mom's neuroses. Canned foods were hardly used in my mother's kitchen. Nowadays, what concern me are the additives and hormones put in many of the natural foods we consume. ~R
Your essay brought an article on on the subject of Disgust to mind:

Human beings are squeamish critters, repelled by unfamiliar grooming habits, physical contact with strangers, exotic meats, bodily fluids...more»
The two things which have amazed me in what it can trigger in a range of people is their learned behavior around food and money. It sounds like you are finding the balance for yourself, which is the undeniable gift of reading you.
Loved this. While my food neurosese aren't quite as prominent as yours, I totally get where you're coming from. My husband once made me a delicious tuna fish sandwich, and told me later on the mayo he used had been expired. I lived to tell the story :)
I think those deep seated neuroses often get passed on, like a little piece of baggage that a parent straps on your back. I'm glad you have mostly seen your way through it. That's no way to live.
It just goes to show eating disorders are learned behavior. I'm glad you have been able to conquer your disorder to certain degree.
Mom is just bit nuts. But nuts can cause diverticulitis.
i've had food poisoning on several occasions...all from dining out. i worry about it more in that situation than in my own cooking. if something looks or smells off, i toss it. if not, i figure the cooking will kill off anything lurking.

my partner does this a bit with some foods and sometimes it really irks me. i had just purchased some kiwis, they hadn't even been in the fridge three days when i discovered she tossed them because she thought they were "too soft." yeah, that's the way i like them. glad you are getting away from the overly careful place. here's to cooking foods to a temperature that kills off everything!
I'm afraid my food handling philosophy is a bit casual. What good is an immune system if you never use it?
Love this piece, Joan. Have just seen Late Again's comment and am smiling. I grew up in the time of pick it up, kiss it to God and eat it anyway. I am thinking I am glad to be reading this days after I risked eating those eggs that had outlived by a fair while the sell by date. Finally I am remembering my first trip to England. I was there for the summer. I am walking by a butcher's shop and looking at pork chops lying out in the sun. Wasn't that sacrilege, I remember thinking at the time. Not long after, I am having tea in a shoppe. The pitcher of milk stayed out on the table for as many hours as it took until it was empty. Once there, we ate as everyone else did. Nothing ever hurt us. Don't think I ever shared much of that with my mother though!
I hope my partner is not your mom... but they sound a little close...
no wonder you're so thin Joanie! maybe the neuroses would help end obesity, lower the diabetes rate AND have a positive effect on meat and dairy growers since most people would be throwing away as much as they consumed.
My one weirdness about eating food prepared in someone else's home is if I've never seen their home. I am a stickler for cleanliness when I cook; some people are not so good.

I blame my "food phobias" on two things: Dan Akroyd's "Cat Lady" skit on SNL and "Pippi Longstockings." I had a friend who let her pets all over her kitchen one minute and the next minute was whipping up a batch of cookies or pizza dough on the same, unwashed surfaces.

I've gotten somewhat better, but I really have to play mind games with myself to do it. (R)
I can really relate to you on this one. The other day I was at a restaurant and someone came by our table and shook my hand. I felt so neurotic, but I went and washed my hands before going back to eating. I have to remind myself that I eat unsafe things all the time and our bodies are much stronger than we give ourselves credit for.
Not much to add to this long list of comments. My kids all have food "issues' which they certainly didn't get from me. Who knows.
" if something looks or smells off, i toss it. if not, i figure the cooking will kill off anything lurking."

just a note on this comment -- it's not true. Foodborne illnesses can be caused by food that looks, smells and tastes fine and has been cooked.

I know - I've just sent some of you into further paroxysms of neurosis. I'm sorry, but it's true.
Thank you everyone for coming by today. I would respond individually, but I had a root canal and am dealing with more pain than is fair.

@Nelle, it's Ok. You know I already knew that cooking didn't kill it off. Remember, I could spell salmonella in 1st grade! :)
I know I've said this before, but everytime you write about your family, I learn a little something different about them. Good job on illuminating the many complexities of your life.

BTW, I think I have a mild case of your mother's disorder. :)
Joan, my daughter is your mother. Throws away everything! I just read Lea's post. Guess you wouldn't dare eat any deer penis huh? :)
Oh god I am your mother.
Loved this. Can really relate. I wrote an essay in 4th grade about my fear of death by random causes and mentioned my worry about botulism coming from a tuna can. The teacher gave me an A and circled the word botulism, with the question, "Word?" Ha! Even if she didn't know the word, the least she could've done is ask if I wanted to talk about my anxieties -- ahh, but that was a different era. So will you tell us what you decide about the eggs?
Well, you know there is always SOMETHING.

I always told my kids they would get botulism if they hadn't washed their hands properly. Later, when they read up on it, they asked me if I hadn't known any better, or if I had just lied. I told them it was because botulism sounded so much more dangerous.
Wonderful. There was only one food my father warned me about...chicken salad. His entire army training unit got food poisoning from it. I can never eat someone elses without fear. Can't imagine what it would be like to be suspect of nearly everything. So well written as you always do...
i cannot tell you how many times i watched my dad eat three-week-old leftover chinese food. my mom is no better, and there are things in her fridge that terrify me.
I actually have had food poisoning several times (really, an astonishing number of times over the years), but mostly from restaurants--only once from food I ate at someone's home.

My mother was also botulism-vigilant . . . and I suppose her vigilance paid off, because I never had botulism. We were cautioned not to eat anything with mayonnaise in it at a picnic or a potluck; not to store anything in the fridge in a metal container--it had to be in plastic or glass; and to cook meat to the consistency of leather. I didn't know until I was an adult that pork chops and chicken weren't naturally dry. Even vegetables were cooked to death; the peas and green beans were so mushy that they were practically the consistency of baby food.

I have my own weirdnesses about food; they're just different from my mother's.

I enjoyed this. It brought back memories!
Poor you! My mother had a thing about cooking everything triple-time past it's done temp (as per my last post) and a rather uninspired cook -- so much so that she handed over her kitchen to me when I was barely in double digits -- but wasn't otherwise too concerned with what we ate as long as she didn't have to prepare it.

Use the eggs for baking, not for over easy, and you'll be okay even if you are concerned!
My grandmother was like your mom to some degree, every piece of meat she fixed us was so overcooked and dried out, it was like shoe leather. To her, the worst thing in the world was the self-serve salad bar at the grocery store, which I ate all the time.
One of my kids got really, really sick once from poisoned food bought from a fast food chain. (Really sick as in I am very thankful to God and the doctor they saved my kid.) Trust me, I've been there in the hysterical squad.
Joan, this is a massive point of contention between my parents, actually. My dad (and I have followed in his footsteps) CANNOT stand preserved food and smells everything before he eats it. He's an internal medicine specialist and thinks about all possible species of bacteria and viruses that could kill him before he takes a bite. My mum, despite being a Gynecologist, couldn't give a damn and buys canned meat and eats old food much to dad's chagrin.

I'd throw away those eggs if I were you. We were practicing differential diagnosis in med school yesterday and we diagnosed a 28 yr. old girl with salmonella which she got from eating uncooked cookie dough.
@Pranay, I appreciate your comment. I threw the eggs out. I actually have not eaten any since the outbreak, but intend to buy some organic eggs from a local farm soon...