I awoke around 3 a.m. from dreams of stomach cramps to find that I actually had them. "Oh no," I immediately thought to myself, "the chicken."
I'd prepared a wholesome household staple last night for dinner, "Rice and Beans and Greens," sautéing garden kale with onions and garlic, then browning some uncooked jasmine rice in the mixture before cooking it all in broth along with some canned beans I had handy. I often brown a little sausage with the greens, but last night I used boneless chicken thighs I'd bought at Trader Joe's. As my intestines gurgled and whined and ached, I started to imagine the worst.
I know I'd cooked the chicken long enough to kill any potential pathogens (that's the whole reason for using dark meat, the dish cooks too long to use breast), but had I been careful enough with the kitchen hygiene? I'd intentionally prepared the salad before cutting up the chicken but was there still some source of cross contamination? A cutting board? A knife? The spoon I'd used to stir the chicken in the pot? And if it is food poisoning, is my daughter likewise afflicted upstairs?
Then I let out a long, welcome fart. Oh. It was the beans. I eventually fell back to sleep.
But it got me thinking once again about the absolute insanity of an industrial food system in which we have been taught to treat the meat we consume as if it were dangerous medical waste. You might think me crazy for my groggy, early morning hypochondria, but if you've ever suffered a case of severe food poisoning, I think you'd understand. It's the status quo that is crazy, not me, that we should so legitimately fear the food we eat. Read the warning labels on the meat packaging itself, or read the CDC statistics on foodborne illness, and then tell me I'm blowing things out of proportion.
In my mid twenties, a similar epiphany while preparing matzoh ball soup led me to a multi-year flirtation with pseudo-vegetarianism: I wouldn't buy, prepare or order meat, but would eat it if served to me in a social setting (or a good Jewish Deli). A carnivorous girlfriend/wife eventually broke me of the habit, but my meat consumption never returned anywhere near previous levels.
And perhaps that might be part of the solution. If we all reduced our meat consumption we could not only afford the healthier, more sustainably produced alternatives (I paid fifty cents a pound more for the "free range" thighs), there also wouldn't be so much pressure on agribusiness to churn out chickens and pigs and cows like they were widgets. But more immediately we need to dramatically adjust food policies that currently favor cheap food over that which is safe and healthy. If we cannot humanely produce chicken at the price consumers want, and that doesn't require washing down your kitchen with bleach after preparation, then the price consumers want is too low.