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Eeeeew: the Health Code Violation Near You

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So we were sitting in a very expensive Westchester restaurant recently, admiring, as we do, the butter bowls. These were some nice butter bowls. They were of the French burrier design, whose most salient feature is that the crock can be inverted in a cup of water to keep its contents fresh without refrigeration. We’ve always wanted a burrier, since we prefer spreadable, room temperature butter, but we’ve never bought one ourselves. Why not? We know our slobby nature. We know that after a few weeks of not changing the water, our quaint little burrier will morph into a toxic, butter-themed death bomb.

While this restaurant’s burriers did not contain the water they were designed to hold (which doesn’t surprise us), they were rather large – sort of family-butter-dish-sized, if you can imagine it. This struck another alarming, cootie-phobic note.

Let us back up a moment and admit a shameful thing in our past. We once worked in a restaurant that—shock, horror—recycled its table butter. That’s right: our waiters packed the room temperature butter into small, white ramekins, smoothed the surfaces flat, and then wrapped the ramekins in plastic to be refrigerated. When the butter came back from the tables, the ramekins were half-heartedly inspected by the waiters (who, in truth, were too busy trying to get lucky with each other to notice any errant bread crumbs or bits of whatever), their contents were transferred to a plastic baggie, and then the whole process started again the next day. I remember one particularly cheap chef brow-beating us cooks into sautéing with the scabby butter or melting the suspiciously lumpy wads into sauces. We, the sweaty aesthetes that we were, always balked. To quote Moon Unit Zappa, that table butter was, like, used.

As we were saying, the burriers at this anonymous restaurant were large, which posed a couple of possible scenarios in our minds. The first is that the restaurant does what the Westchester County Department of Health requires: they discard the entire contents of the burrier after each table leaves. That means that even though a single—or, for that matter, no—person has taken a tiny scrape with his immaculately clean butter knife, the entire 4-to-8 ounces of butter gets chucked. This seems at odds with our mystery restaurant’s stated mission — at best, such waste seems expensive, unholistic and not particularly Zen.

The second scenario is that this pricy restaurant does what the majority of other restaurants do. If the restaurant doesn’t serve foil or paper wrapped butterpats (or deal their butter out in another tiny, single serve dose), they re-pack the butter dish, smooth its surface so that no-one will know, and then send the bowl out again for the next table to use. Understandably, given my experience, I’ve learned to fear leveled-off bowls of butter.

(Of course, I do not know what our subject restaurant does with all their burrier butter, and I won’t ask, either. Butter recycling (like nose picking) is not the sort of thing one admits to. We will say that the meal at this restaurant was fabulous, and that we ate the burrier butter and enjoyed it. There was no visible non-butter matter in it, though we didn’t do a microscopic study, which, unfortunately, is the only study that counts.)

Interest piqued in whole health code violations issue, I called up the nice folks at the Westchester County Health Department to talk about it. Caution: the information below might cause paranoia.

According to Gabe Scanga, Principal Public Health Sanitarian (and, actually, a pleasant, chatty guy and former restaurant manager), there are loads of common health code violations that he sees all the time. Many of these violations are Red Violations, which can be severe enough to summarily shut down a restaurant.

  • Marrying Ketchup Bottles. Ever wonder why the diner’s ketchup bottles are always full? Ever see ketchup bottles balanced upside-down onto other ketchup bottles? This salacious practice does not generate ketchup packets. It’s called marrying the bottles and it can lead to fermentation. Besides the resulting ketchup wine (which sounds unattractive), the practice also makes it impossible to determine the actual age of the product. Given the usual town diner, and how long this practice has gone on, you might be consuming molecules of ketchup manufactured in the mid-Sixties. The same situation hold for olive oil cruets, etc. — and the practice of marrying tabletop condiments happens all the time.
  • Bread Baskets. Just like butter, any bread (or cream, olives, pickles, or whatever, except—for some mysterious reason—syrups) has to be discarded once it’s been served to a table. Of course, bread isn’t cheap, so many restaurants re-serve the uneaten bread, no matter how many folks have felt it up or sneezed on it. If you’re particular, opt for restaurants that send a busboy around to dole out slices from a larger basket with tongs.
  • Bar snacks. You know those bowls of nuts, pretzels, Chex mix, whatever, that you see lurking on bartops? Apparently, these are to be placed in front of each associated group of customers and then discarded—as if each group at the bar were an individual table. All we have to say is, as if that ever happens.
  • Gloves. Okay, here’s the rule: any food not about to be cooked must be handled with gloves. Seems reasonable, right? Until you ask yourself — how many sushi chefs wear gloves? Or deli counter men? Or, our particular favorite, bartenders? That’s right, bartenders – those people that handle everyone’s nasty, saliva-coated beer glasses all night long and then clean the bathrooms after an unpleasant, Jägermeister-induced event. They’re also barehanding your olives, lemons, and maraschino cherries, too.

According to Mr. Scanga, the biggest fear nowadays is not e. Coli, salmonella or even killer botulism (although that particular anaerobic bacteria has been linked to some iffy sous-vide practices). While those age-old bacterial illnesses still lurk, the worst offenders are noroviruses, the group of pathogens that are colloquially, and innocuously, termed “stomach virus”.

The problem with norovirus is that while you might feel poorly for only a day or two (how poorly? Look for the grisly details in the norovirus link, you’ll be shedding virus all over everything even before you feel sick, and, usually, well after you feel better. This is the same cootie that rages through cruise ships like, well, norovirus on a cruise ship. And while some people might simply spend a few days close to their bathrooms, other people can actually die.

While everyone must draw their own limits, we’ve learned to accept that poor food handling happens. We accept the risks of eating out just as we accept the risks of driving—which is, of course, a thousand times more dangerous and it’s something we do every day. Yet Asa Aarons never does exposés themed, “The Danger Lurking Behind Your Steering Wheel”. News-hook-wise, it’s no square dancing rats in a Burger King.

Here are some personal choices to consider. Anthony Bourdain wont eat mussels – they’re hard to store, die, and often get served anyway. Our new friend Gabe Scanga at the Health Department? He wont eat raw oysters or clams—claims there’s something called vibrio parahaemolyticus out there in the shellfish population, besides the old hat hepatitis (still happily breeding along in beds). Apparently, people get vibrio all the time and die. Us? As professional eaters, we eat medium-rare burgers, raw shellfish, carpaccio and sushi, but we definitely draw the line at salad bars. Sneeze guards or not, those tongs have fallen into the food repeatedly and they’ve been handled by everyone. Ew.

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