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Health Code Violation Redux: When the Law Goes Too Far

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Well—in taking a look at some of the responses to our post about frequent Health Code violations, we’re worried that we might have encouraged food phobia. This, as enthusiastic eaters of nearly anything, was never our intention. Look, folks—we love raw oysters; raw beef; unpasteurized cheese; slightly warm, gooey egg yolks; barely stable, room temperature butter and pink pork. Some of our favorite meals have never seen refrigeration, and we even love those slightly spooky, leaf-wrapped dumplings at Kam Sen. In the face of our numerous (and, sadly, multiplying) food phobic friends, we’ve always maintained that while there are some overhyped risks to dining out, you’re much more likely to be killed by driving your car than by eating an oyster. We feel that the world of food, with all of its gorgeous, sensuous variety, is worth the miniscule risks of eating out. Plus, if you don’t go to restaurants, we won’t have much of a job here at EATER.

Having donated this space to some commonly-occurring health code violations, we’d now like to discuss where our food laws err on the side of absurdity.
We, in the US, are a cautious nation. We have laws banning certain foods, a drinking age of 21, and a prohibitive ratings system for our films. We, collectively, prefer a lot of oversight when it comes to what we consume. In effect, we pay people to withhold stuff from us.

While we at EATER believe food regulation is important, here’s where we think the law gets it wrong:

US Department of Agriculture Importation Laws

Your government won’t allow you to buy some of the most beautiful cheeses and salumi made in Europe. You can’t, for instance, taste the fragile, silky porkiness of culatello—a cured meat thought by many in the Emilia-Romagna as far superior to even the best prosciutto di Parma. Why not? Culatello is air cured in earth-floored cellars, and bathed by the natural misty nebbia of the Po River valley. It’s been cured this way for centuries and those Italians have got it down pat—culatello doesn’t kill. Yet you can’t buy genuine culatello here in the US because the government thinks that those rustic curing conditions in the Po River valley—lacking oceans of stainless steel, refrigerators and Clorox—are unsanitary.

Ditto for fresh, raw milk cheeses. US import gates slam down on cheeses aged for fewer than 60 days made with unpasteurized milk. Doesn’t sound too bad until you realize what pasteurization does to dairy—it denatures it, and, to a certain degree, de-flavors it. Even though we can’t buy raw milk here in NY State (though you can in CT), you can get a sense of the damage pasteurization does with a little experiment. Buy some ultra-pasteurized heavy cream from the supermarket and then buy some slow, batch-pasturized heavy cream from Butterworks Farm (available at Cherry Lawn Farmer’s Market in New Rochelle). Taste the two creams, and then whip them – the ultra pasteurized cream takes longer to whip, turns watery faster, and doesn’t have much flavor. The Butterworks cream is a whole different animal. Its slow, tedious, low-temperature single-pasteurization leaves the cream lush, mouth-coating, ineffably fresh and dairy-tasting. While you’re at it, look at the ingredients—the ultra pasteurized cream has been fortified with carrageenan, a seaweed-based thickener. It’s a necessary tactic to create a fake, creamy mouthfeel –necessary because the cream’s been, essentially, boiled to death. Now—seeing what a gentler process does for the cream, imagine what it would taste like if it hadn’t been pasteurized at all.

And it only gets worse with cheeses. Like making wine or baking bread, making cheese means cultivating a tasty little menagerie of tiny organisms—yeasts in wine and bread, and molds in cheese. Our ingenious forefathers have figured out how to get the right mold spores into milks and cream. They’ve worked it out so that they can preserve the bounty (and life-sustaining calories) of their dairy herd over the long, hard winter– while enjoying a damn good Brie or Camembert as they do it. All that age-old finesse was based on uncooked, un-de-natured dairy products because that’s what they used. You can’t just make the same thing with pasteurized milk, because once you cook the milk, its properties change. All that traditional knowledge has to be re-thought, and the resulting importable cheese will never taste the same—just like that ultrapasturized cream. Of course, as with the culatello, traditional raw milk cheeses don’t kill people. They’re made by craftsmen, experts, who have learned their craft from other experts. Over the centuries, they’ve worked out all the kinks.

What does kill people is the American, sped-up, Henry Ford-ized attitude to animal husbandry that gives us vast, uncontrollable feed lots and slap-dash, e. Coli splashing meat processing factories. Folks, this is a new way of producing our food, and we have NOT worked the out the kinks. People die every year in outbreaks caused by “modern”, lawful, American agricultural processes

Sushi

Okay—we’re regretting that we mentioned that sushi chefs violate the health code when they don’t wear gloves. We feel that this is one of those law-goes-too-far areas. We think that diners should choose their sushi bars according to where the fish is best, and not where the chef wears gloves. Sushi chefs wash their hands all the time, and the rice is seasoned with anti-bacterial vinegar. Worry more about all that mercury in your Bluefin tuna.

Egg Yolks

Think Prohibition ended with the Charleston? Think again. During the 1990’s, in reaction to widespread salmonella scares, New Jersey banned soft cooked egg yolks. That’s right, Trenton passed a law outlawing good ol’ American gooey, sunny side up eggs—and even fined restaurants up to $100 for serving them. (This could really add up in a diner, so there were a lot of vulcanized orders of eggs going out.)This remarkable law has since been rescinded—but, jeez, they actually banned soft boiled eggs!

Sous-Vide cooking

In order to legally use this trendy new cooking method—where (usually) proteins are vacuum-sealed in plastic, then slow cooked at low temperatures–chefs must to hire a food scientist to develop and submit a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan to the Department of Health. Obviously, this is too costly for a single menu item, so most restaurants are effectively banned from sous vide cooking. Why such a bother? Apparently, some not-so-swift chefs chucked some vac-pac meat in the backs of their lowboys and forgot about them for a week, then they sous-vided those puppies up at a nice, microbe –friendly low temperature. We’re afraid there was some botulism… it wasn’t pretty.

But outlaw an entire cooking method because of a few idiots? Why not outlaw devilled eggs at church picnics, too? Surely those– after sitting in the July sun for an afternoon– have taken out the odd, unsuspecting diner.

Cheese temperatures

Imagine: you’ve just had a fine meal and a good bottle of wine. Let’s say, for instance, that the meal was so good that you don’t want the savories to end. You scan the dessert menu trying to avoid a palate-clobbering sweet, when you spy a cheese plate, and– score!—they’ve got Époisses.

Époisses is one of those irresistible stinky cheeses. Gooey, runny, rich and redolent, if you’ve never understood why people eat stinky cheese, this is the reason. Imagine an edible version of the grand finale of the Fourth of July fireworks. It’s a big, big flavor—so mouth filling, so satisfying, and so gooey, that you can wind its yummy interior around your tongue like candy.

Then imagine that your Epoisses arrives ice cold, hard, and not even all that smelly. Poke it—it’s got the rubbery texture of pasteurized American brie. What a buzzkill! But it’s what the Health Code demands.

According to our cheerful Westchester County Department of Health Principal Sanitarian, Gabe Scanga (who, we think, would never have imprisoned that poor Irish immigrant cook Typhoid Mary for life against her will, like his co-careerists at the Department of Health), cheese must be stored in the refrigerator. Portions of cheese may be warmed to order, but it’s only possible if diners order their cheese plates as soon as they sit down.

It’s not just Epoisses that suffers–the texture of all soft cheeses changes in cold temperature. Fresh fior de latte mozzarella—soft, weeping, barely emulsified milk at room temperature, becomes tight and rubbery when chilled. Chilling is bad for flavor, too—your taste buds are less effective with cold substances: think about icy red wine. Yuccck! Refrigerated cheese—and the laws that require this tragic miscarriage of justice –must be stopped. Look, if Jersey could protect runny eggs, we have a chance.

Next post: how restaurant kitchens have changed with stricter health codes.

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