As a hypochondriac specializing in disorders of the gastrointestinal system, I’ve spent the better part of my life more than a little concerned about death by salmonella — or as I like to call the bacteria, Sal “Not Your Pal” Monella.
My earliest memory of Sal “Not Your Pal” dates back to 1987. I was at my friend’s house attending a barbecue, when we heard her parental units engaged in a rather vicious spat. We couldn’t make out most of what they were shouting, but it seemed to have something to do with potato salad that had sat out too long on account of her father’s laziness. What I did hear loud and clear was her mother’s voice screaming, “FINE RON. GO AHEAD. GET SALMONELLA. SEE IF I CARE!”
I remember finding this riotously funny, yet strangely disturbing. Salmonella. It sounded so exotic, and so BAD. I was fascinated. Then, as luck would have it, about two years later, my boyfriend B. came down with a virulent case after eating half a Blimpie tuna sub he’d purchased on an overnight Model U.N. trip and forgotten to stash in the hotel’s mini-fridge.
I imagined tiny, pink critters attacking his stomach and created a cartoon in B.’s honor, illustrating the poisoning. Brilliantly, I used scented Mr. Sketch magic markers to depict the aforementioned critters as gangsters, all working for Sal “Not Your Pal” Monella. His famiglia included the great Sid Di Arrhea and Len Shitzomucho. (Eighteen years later, I am still in awe of my creative genius.)
This particular case of Sal “Not Your Pal” was not lethal, and B. made a full recovery, eventually cheating on me, flunking out of several colleges and going on to a lucrative career as a marijuana farmer. I do not attribute any of these things to Sal. But B. was pretty sick for a while, and you can rest assured that my own food ingestion practices have never been the same: Sal has never been far from my mind.
But those were the good old days. Back then, if you were vigilant about your mayonaise intake and the color of the chicken on your plate (pure white = safe, pink hue = days on the crappair with firewater coming out of your ass), you could be reasonably sure you were safe from Sal Monella and his crew. At sketchy eateries, at picnics, or when dining at the apartment of an incompetent chef, you knew that if you stuck to salad, let’s say, all would be well.
But here in the new millennium, nothing is safe. E.coli-riddled spinach can kill you. SPINACH! The PARAGON of healthy, wholesome eating! And now, tomatoes. Even vegetables are deadly: surely, Armageddon is near.
In the weeks since Tomatogate broke, I’ve found myself struggling to redefine my relationship with the red orbs. I had never thought much about them, but I now realize what a big role they play in some of life’s simple pleasures. A BLT — the most perfect of diner sandwiches, when made with crisp iceberg lettuce and bacon cooked to exactly the right texture — can no longer be enjoyed without angst. Pizza may or may not contain deadly sauce — is it worth the risk? And if not, what the hell else are you supposed to eat late at night? Then of course, there are things like ketchup, tapenade and salsa: all potentially toxic condiments. Frick on a dry, tasteless stick.
And where’s a girl to draw the line? What about sour tomatoes, canned tomatoes and store-bought tomato sauce? Are tomato juice and V8 safe? If you pronounced it “tom-ah-to,” were you a-okay? What about my lycopene-based eye cream from Kiehl’s? Or the tomato red nail polish on my toes?!
And who can keep track of the KIND of tomatoes Sal “Not Your Pal” has permeated. Cherry and grape tomatoes are, allegedly, okay. But how do “they” know? Red, round tomatoes are NOT safe. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t tomatoes almost ALWAYS red and round? Jeez Louise.
Look, since I hit the big 3-5 last year, I’ve really TRIED to be a better eater. I’ve made a pact to eat nutritious cereal (and I don’t mean Cap’n Crunch even though I do heart him) at least four times a week for breakfast. I eat vegetables — and not just green M&Ms — at every lunch and dinner. I count Red Mango as my official afternoon snack instead of (or at least, in addition to) Snickers and Famous Amos. But all these vegetable woes lead me to believe that I was right all along: the safest foods are those that do not go bad. Ever. No matter how hot it gets. Twinkies. Velveeta. Twizzlers.
You may scoff at the thought of a girl like me stocking up on trailer-icious fare like this. But mark my words. When Armageddon does hit …all you Kashi-loving, tofu-eating, green tea-drinking health freaks will be knocking on MY door.