Weeks 14 & 15: 180 Fahrenheit

Two unsolicited, but very important, cooking tips:

  1. 180 Fahrenheit. Learn it. Memorize it. This is the temperature to which whole poultry products should be cooked to ensure the complete destruction of all microorganisms lurking in the flesh you will feed yourselves and your families. For chicken breasts, you can get by with 170 F. Use a meat thermometer to verify that the proper internal temperature has been reached before you serve any and all cooked poultry. Make sure it is a clean one.

  2. Don't eat raw chicken.
So. The last two weeks sucked. Completely. Totally. Sucked. Why, you ask? What could possibly make a person enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in an exotic land on the other side of the globe use such a pedestrian term as "sucked" to describe her experiences? Because it is appropriate. Because my body was invaded. Because over the past two weeks I have suffered a large scale intestinal insurrection, an attack of such scatological magnitude that it reduced me to a useless, whimpering mass, confined day and night to an area governed by peristaltic force and travel distance to the bathroom, often questioning the probability of my survival. This digestive revolution, according to my doctor, likely started out with - it pains me to say - food poisoning. The star of this unwanted drama, as all carefully reviewed evidence suggests, was none other than the dastardly bastard bacterium: salmonella.

The irony of this unpleasant situation does not escape me, and it greatly amuses my terribly insensitive husband. Because, thanks to an intense two-day training course given by the Mesquite Department of Health back in my personal dark ages of the early nineties, when I was young and foolish and managing a restaurant, I always employ carefully honed and thoroughly researched food preparation methods when I cook - always. I do not border on the obsessive when it comes to handling raw meat in my kitchen, I embrace it. I wrap it lovingly in compulsive hand washing and I nurture it with constant scouring, scalded skin and ruined kitchen surfaces be damned. Many of you who have seen me prepare a meal containing raw beef or - dare I say it, chicken - in its list of ingredients think I go overboard. I know you do. I have seen the looks of disbelief on your faces as I wash my hands in ultra-hot water for the seventh time, as I follow-up the bleach rinse on my porous countertop with an antibacterial scrub, then finish with a cleansing flourish of Clorox wipes for everything potentially touched by, dripped on by, or in the vicinity of raw meat. You shake your heads and murmur softly amongst yourselves. Some of you have pointed and laughed openly. It doesn't bother me a bit. Because no member of my family, no guest in my home, no consumer of a pot-luck dish that I have presented, not one of you has ever suffered from food poisoning after eating a dish that I have prepared. Ever.

So how, then, did this pernicious pest find its way into my system? A very good question, and one the good doctor asked me herself. "Have you eaten any strange foods?" she asked. Well, I live in a country where people eat fish head soup and sting ray steaks - most of the food here is strange is to me. So, let's look back to the suspected scene of the crime.

It was a Friday night, just over two weeks ago (I know the exact date because we track every single household expense in a giant spreadsheet - but that's a different story entirely). Greg and I decided to take the visiting grandparents, Troy and Sherrie, out for a dinner of "local" fare. Greg chose the location, which had a menu featuring what was deceptively described as "Korean barbecue." It was essentially a big buffet, filled with scores of raw foods that you place on a heated surface at your table to cook. There is a pot of boiling liquid in the middle of the "grill" where you can boil noodles to accompany the meat and vegetables. After paying the bill before we even entered the facility, the boys and I sat down at the table while Greg gathered all of the components for our dinner. Having finished round one, I decided to try a few new and different things, so I ventured to the bar of horrors myself. There I encountered a large table with buckets full of raw beef and chicken, only some of which had a set of tongs for easy retrieval. I nervously selected some peppered beef and hurried back to the table. After eating the beef, and still in my now regrettable zeal for new dietary experiences, I decided to try some of the crab meat I had seen on Sherrie's plate. Greg offered to get it for me, since I was still trembling from the multi-use tong situation. It was only after I sampled several pieces of the processed and very bland red and white striped meat tubes that I asked Greg from where on the buffet the crab had come (I didn't see it on my trip). My husband, who knows very well my totally justified fear of uncooked poultry, told me it was right next the other meats. "The RAW meats?!" I screeched. Only then did I notice that clever Sherrie had been boiling her crab meat in the little grill pot before consuming it.

When I carefully detailed this food safety nightmare to the doctor, she nodded her head, saying "Ahhhh," and pointed to her medical text, where the word "salmonella" glared out at me like a jilted and vengeful lover. "We'll need a sample to be sure." Ugh. For the next 72 hours I was treated to a fistful of medications just to replace all of the good bacteria in my system, those hapless victims of digestive war. And, I was ordered to drink nothing but electrolyte-replacing fluids - apparently I became almost dangerously dehydrated from my all too numerous bathroom adventures.

So, that must be the end of it, you say. Or surely the worst of it, at least. Well, hold on to your sitz bath, folks, because this ride wasn't even close to over.

Once the tests came back, and when it was clear my intestinal invader had no plans for retreat, regardless of the quality or quantity of medications consumed, my doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist for further evaluation. She was a friendly doctor who, following her examination, promptly scheduled me for a colonoscopy. For that very morning. St. Patrick's Day. Under the nurse's watchful eye, I toasted this fun Irish holiday with a jar full of fluid that tasted like saltwater, that I was told to just "throw back," followed by more races to the restroom, thoughtfully located approximately 50 feet, two doors, and one hairy turn away from the doctor's office. Cheers!

I woke up, an hour after Nurse Ratched crammed an IV into my still visibly bruised hand, feeling rather violated. While I was asleep, and to complete her diagnostic quest, I am told the doctor also performed a gastroscopy (down the throat), so all ends of the spectrum were indeed covered. The diagnosis: infection of the large intestine, with probable salmonella food poisoning as the origin. I do hope you're not eating as you read this. Or cooking.

To those of you who have mocked my food handling habits, and you know who you are, heed my warning: do everything you can to avoid this and other baneful bacteria. I have looked into the eyes of my unfortunately edible enemy, and I know him well. He commands innumerable hours of discomfort and intense abdominal pain. He attacks your body from the inside out, and leaves you too exhausted and frail to fight back. To those of you who disparage antibacterial soap because "it kills all of the good germs," and you who think monitoring internal poultry temperatures is a waste of time, spend a week on my toilet and you'll change your tune I'm sure, clutching your unused meat thermometer in your weakened fist while you recite, at last, but alas, too late, my mantra: scour, scrub, disinfect, repeat. And cook the chicken, until it reaches 180 degrees.

In the immortal words (almost) of FDR: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and salmonella. And the black spitting cobra. And bird flu, and mad cow disease. And maybe those giant bird-eating spiders

At long last, I am, thankfully, feeling much better. So I'll leave you with a cheery little limerick to celebrate St. Patrick's day - I hope yours was better than mine:

Behold the foul colonoscopy
So cruelly inflicted upon me
With tubes in and tubes out
I'm completely cleaned out
But I think the damn thing may have helped me

Take care,
Shannon et al.

I am sure you are quite relieved that there are no pictures this week.