Yes, yes, I know – Godwin’s law and all that. But the term is so perfect that I choose to use it, even while recognizing that the analogy is obviously absurd. I refer, of course, to the full range of health and longevity fetishists who push for ever more intrusive regulation of what we eat, drink or otherwise take into our bodies. The folks who are encouraging more lawsuits against fast food restaurants on behalf of people who claim McDonald’s made them fat – as though Ronald put a gun to their head and made them eat big macs and fat-saturated fries 3 times a day.
The latest target of my ire comes via Radley Balko, citing a NY Times article about that city’s health inspectors forcing restauranteurs to stop preparing food using a technique called sous vide – vacuum-packed foods slow cooked in simmering water. And they did so without a single complaint of any food-borne illness resulting from it:
What’s been fascinating the city’s chefs lately is a technique long used in France called sous vide, in which serving portions of seasoned and vacuum-packed food are submerged in barely simmering water. This long, slow and low-temperature cooking makes the food taste more intensely of what it should taste like, preserves its nutritional value and often creates a texture of unspeakable silkiness that everyone ought to experience.
Except the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene won’t allow it. In recent weeks, having caught wind of the use of this new technique — not by a single report of food-borne illness but rather through the restaurant coverage of newspapers and magazines — inspectors have shut down the system at many restaurants, standing by to make sure that chefs have destroyed the shrink-wrapped food, fining them for serving sous vide dishes and forbidding the use of the equipment used in their production.
You may feel about sous vide the way most New Yorkers apparently feel about squeegee guys, turnstile-jumping and graffiti on subway cars. But for those of us who still cherish the right to order a rare steak and a raw oyster (in the right restaurants), who have been known occasionally to cross the street in the middle of the block instead of at a crosswalk, the health department’s attitude toward food safety feels alarmist.
I’m with Balko – the very notion that the city of New York has a department devoted to “mental hygiene” is creepy enough on its own. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Anyone with the desire to order food prepared sous vide knows the nature of the technique. They also likely know that if the food is contaminated before it is prepared in the package, this cooking technique may well not kill off the micro-organisms that contaminated it and they risk food-borne illness as a result.
The restaurant, of course, knows this too and so extra care is taken to make sure that the food is handled safely. A restaurant is not like some big corporation with a corporate office a billion miles from the negative effects their practices might cause. A restaurant that makes its customers sick doesn’t stay in business, period. That is especially true of a fine dining establishment, whose customers are extraordinarily fickle.
The fact is that virtually everyone chooses to eat risky foods. They may be short term risky or long term risky. On the long term risky side you can everything in the junk food category and most of the world’s great dishes. Biscuits and sausage gravy won’t make you sick, but in the long run it’s certainly not helping your arteries any. Likewise grease-laden french fries. And don’t even get me started about my beloved BBQ, most of which is dripping in fat. What else could make it taste so good? But it’s delicious and we choose to eat it anyway. We have that right – after all, our bodies belong to us, not to the government.
On the short term risky side, you have undercooked hamburgers, eggs sunny side up, sashimi and many other types of food that, if not handled properly, can cause food-borne illness within 3 days of being eaten. But just try and find a real Caesar’s salad these days. Does anyone even remember what a real Caesar’s salad is? It includes raw or coddled eggs. Good luck finding a restaurant that still serves it that way, even with the invention of egg pasteurizing.
This is no different than people who choose to bungee jump, ride motorcycles, downhill ski or go hunting with Dick Cheney. Those who engage in such activities know they’re taking a risk, but that risk is acceptable to them because the reward, at least to them, outweighs that risk. The government needs to understand that we don’t need a nanny or another mother. We are perfectly capable of making those decisions for ourselves. And if we make the wrong decision, we’re the ones who will have to pay the price for it.