Pity the Food

Due to poor planning and execution, I shuttled leftover chicken and broccoli back and forth between home and work refrigerators for a week. By the time I opened the glass container in the office kitchen on the seventh day, the broccoli had turned a hybrid brown-green color and smelled even worse than it normally does when steamed plain.

I distinctly remember getting a 96 in one, if not both semesters, of Coach Smith’s 10th-grade AP Chemistry class. So don’t take me for an idiot. But I don’t really know how microwaves work and what they do to food during the heating process, except that if you stand too close, Asian parents will yell.

The groundless optimist in me — the same bastard part of my generally rational mind that makes me think I’m going to win the lottery every time I buy a ticket — hoped that zapping the suspect broccoli in the microwave would somehow kill the odor. Instead, I did to that little problem what our ad agency might do to your content: creation, amplification, distribution.

Had I thought of this neat parallel more quickly, I could have positioned my blunder to bewildered coworkers as a metaphorical demonstration. People were legitimately confused why, in a communal space designated for handling food, a smell permeated that almost perfectly matched that of garbage.

I don’t get paid to answer such questions, so I took my embattled lunch and retreated to the sanctuary of my desk. With the spots around me thankfully vacated at the time, I figured no one would notice. But almost as soon as I sat down, murmurs floated from three rows back demanding to know who farted.

When I explained the source, a colleague could not comprehend why I was still going to eat this food. It was not only unappetizing from her perspective, but rotten and dangerous to ingest. She exhorted me to throw it away.

First of all, I take an inordinate amount of pride in my immune system, and discounting its vigor is not the way to break my stubborn streak. Second, this conversation branched off into a broader one about a perceived myth.

Don’t get mad at me, but I don’t believe food poisoning really is a thing. This opinion offended some coworkers who readily could evoke painful experiences. But I don’t see how my belief can be more offensive than adults who confidently deny dinosaurs existed. If they can get away with that and still snag a high school or even college diploma, I should have the same courtesy applied to my convictions.

And I back up my mouth with my esophagus. I choked down that broccoli. It tasted disgusting. Earlier this year, I ate two-week-old chicken with a slimy film on it and on a separate occasion, undercooked chicken that was the wrong color and consistency on the inside. Here’s a selfie of me putting down yogurt with mold in it (not the moldy part, I’m not a barbarian):

In foreign countries, I intentionally seek the most adventurous menu items. I found a street cart on a secluded corner in Thailand and ordered pig ear, “sour fish” and something, I kid you not, called “chicken stomach flu.”

I could go on and on stroking my robust immune system, but I don’t want to give myself a boner. As far as I could tell, no food has ever poisoned my body. There was that one time freshman year when I took 12 shots of Skol vodka before our suitemate’s theatre production, collapsed against the wall of the bathroom in the student center under the supervision of a burly ex-high school middle linebacker, and then proceeded to tell the campus police officer who found us that “I think I have food poisoning or something.”

It seems to me, hypothetically of course, that food poisoning is the most convenient of excuses. You don’t have to show any symptoms before or after the alleged episode, and it can happen with as much or little lead time or as severe or mild effects as fit for your narrative.

Now, people very dear to me have suffered food poisoning, and I don’t want to question their integrity or yours. But I just don’t think it’s fair to blame the food all the time. We throw out so much because of arbitrary expiration dates and shelf lives and time left sitting out at room temperature and cooking methods and packaging and looks and smells. Come on now, just eat it.

What will really make you sick is if you research the amount of water and carbon pollution needed to produce all that wasted food. Just eat it. Prime your immune system, and condition that dainty little stomach. Not everything has to taste good or make you feel good. Sustenance and resource efficiency are worthy goals.

Maybe that’s unfair. Don’t eat if you’re just going to throw it back up. That’s a waste, too. I am a proficient machine when it comes to eradicating everyone’s leftovers, but I draw the line at vomit unless it’s a pretty color and I can blend in unsalted almond butter.

All we’re talking about here is a difference in baselines. The same bite of food can be fine to one person and illness-inducing to another. I just want to balance it out a bit and lighten some of the burden of presumed guilt placed on restaurants, cooks, grocery stores, manufacturers.

Instead of lumping everything into the food poisoning category, we can create another one for food sensitivity.

“Sorry I missed your birthday. I had bad Chinese last night.”

“Sorry I missed your birthday. I had food sensitivity last night.”

They definitely don’t have the same connotations or elicit the same pity, but I tend to think they’re the same thing.



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