I am - actually, all three of us are - recovering from a case of food poisoning. This was the first time that all three of us were sick at the same time. It was also the first time that we were sick with a hoard of other people who shared the same symptoms: gripes, followed by diarrhea.
It wasn't until we had made it through a particularly bad night that we found out what had caused it. Until then, we wondered whether it could have been the lemonade we bought from those adorable little girls on our ride home. No! It must have been the bakarvadi that we demolished in one sitting. Or was it the mock bhel I made by mixing chopped onions doused in lemon juice, with Khatta Meetha, Bhujia Sev and Dal Biji. That Dal Biji is potent enough to give us acid reflux if we eat more than a couple of spoonfuls. Or was it the dinner we were eating - kababs and saag paneer - when it struck? It couldn't have been dinner as we were still in the process of ingesting it. When the "me too" emails started trickling in the next morning, we found out that misery does indeed have a lot of company.
We still don't know which particular dish at the community gathering caused so many of us to take ill. Some people have suggested that perhaps it was some of the store-bought dairy products that were used that may have been contaminated. Others pointed fingers at the wheat tortillas from the Mexican store. Usually when such things occur, meat is under most suspicion but this was a completely vegetarian meal.
A series of phone calls to friends around the country led me to a horrifying discovery: food safety is taken with a pinch of salt. One word for those who do: DON'T.
Do not store food in your garage.
When people cook for potlucks or for large community gatherings, they find that they don't have enough room in their refrigerator to store the food. Many times the quantity is so large that the food is cooked the day before. There is nothing wrong with that as long as it is refrigerated promptly. A garage is not a refrigerator, especially not in fall. Food must be refrigerated in a controlled environment at 40F or below.
Do not handle cooked food with your bare hands.
It is a common practice to scoop the last of the rice or pulao from a pot with bare hands when transferring to a container or even to a serving dish. Please! Even if you wash your hands, you run the risk of transferring bacteria and germs to cooked food which will not be heated to a high enough temperature again. Use a spoon. The same holds for the grains of rice that remain stuck to the serving spoon. Use another spoon. When it comes to the last of dals and curries, too, don't use your bare hands. If you must scrape off every last bit, use a spatula.
Chutneys, especially the cilantro-ginger-lemon kind, are not cooked after they have their fun in the blender. Use a spoon or spatula.
Handling food is the easiest way to transfer illnesses to others. You may be a carrier of a self-limiting GI virus and you may, unknowingly, give it as a parting gift to everyone who eats the food you bring to the party. Just don't do it.
Do not leave food at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
In summer or on hot days, the outer limit is one hour.
Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
If you are going to be carrying hot food to where the large gathering is at, invest in an insulated carrier to keep the food hot. Otherwise, carry it in a cooler on ice or frozen gel ice packs. When you reheat it, bring dals and curries to a boil.
Wash your hands and sanitize them before serving food at a gathering.
Use serving spoons or other serving utensils.
Do not serve with your bare hands even if you followed the previous tip! Use food service gloves, if possible.
Ensure that the food, plates, cutlery and cups are covered until they are used.
Keep food covered and watch for flies. Ensure that the serving tables are far from open trash cans. If you must touch the unused plates, cups or cutlery, do so in an area where no food will be placed.
Other good stuff:
- Do not cross-contaminate.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and in hot water.
- If you're sick, opt out of cooking for your gathering. Believe me, your friends would rather go hungry than contract your illness.
- Tie your hair back or wear those goofy hair nets.
- Wash your ingredients well. Even fruits that have a thick outer skin like bananas, lemons and oranges.
- Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator, in the microwave or under cold running water.
- Do not use a damp smelly sponge to wash your dishes. Wash your sponge and your dish scrub in the upper rack of your dishwasher every couple of days. Or sanitize your sponge - taking the required precaution - in your microwave.
More food safety tips from:
Consumers Union Food Safety Tips
Safety tips for meat, poultry and fish
Gateway to Food Safety Info from the US Government
US FDA's Food Safety Tips for Healthy Holidays
Remaining hydrated is the key to recovery from food poisoning. If diarrhea does not stop, consider taking over-the-counter medication like Imodium or calling your doctor. Never take a chance with young children - always call your doctor if diarrhea persists. If vomitting is one of the symptoms, then that makes hydration even more difficult. In such cases, it makes more sense to suck on ice chips or to drink only a couple of spoonfuls, at a time, of fluids like Gatorade or apple juice or even plain water. I am not a doctor so always call your physician or follow your instincts and go to the ER if you have to.
Do not take food safety lightly. The consequences of your negligence or lack of awareness could send someone to hospital.