Michele Samarya-Timm writes: Grandma’s Traditions and a Food-Safe Thanksgiving

Longtime friend of the barfblog.com, Michéle Samarya-Timm, health educator at the Somerset County Department of Health (that’s in New Jersey, represent) writes:

It’s hard to contradict old school beliefs, change a recipe that’s been handed down for generations, or tell someone they didn’t fold the napkins correctly – holidays bring out both obvious and latent risks to family, sanity, and even one’s health. Knowing why traditions exist — as well as recognizing which ones to keep, and which to sunset — can be key to happiness and health at Thanksgiving and beyond.

Traditions for many begin with family, and food. I recall how holidays at Grandma’s house were a veritable cornucopia of harvest delights – sides like russet potatoes, zucchini pickles, carrot gravy and sliced beet salad were only ancillary adornments to the spotlight of the holiday – a gloriously roasted and hefty Tom turkey.

As grandma entered her mid-nineties, she reluctantly relinquished her holiday kitchen duties to her daughters – all 7 were well versed in cooking (and eating!), having been tutored by their mother’s exacting hand. It never mattered that every one of my aunts had roasted legions of turkeys in their time; Grandma would not trust that a turkey was done until she navigated her walker into the kitchen and stuck the bird with her favorite 2-pronged wood-handled meat fork. Neighbors and family alike knew a turkey wasn’t finished cooking until Mama decreed it was so.

Grandma was particular, mostly because she spent a good deal of her life on a farm. Folks didn’t go to the nearest supermarket to buy meat in those days. Instead, one ambled out to the poultry coop, grabbed the least scraggly fowl, and slaughtered it with a practiced hand. The turkey then would be bled, gutted and plucked. My Aunt Kay described the last step to me: “Mama would dip the bird into boiling water which loosened the feathers enough for easy yanking. Remaining quills would be carefully burned off with a quick pass of a torch made by lighting yesterday’s newspaper.” Any remaining soot or debris was removed by giving the defrocked bird a quick water bath before being seasoned and dressed for his multi-hour roast.

Fast forward to modern day, where many are lucky enough to select a thanksgiving entrée from the local supermarket, rather than a turkey roost. These days, the likes of Mr. Perdue, Butterball, Jennie-O and many others have taken over the chore of slaughter, and eased the preparation duties in American Thanksgiving kitchens. The processed and featherless grocery store bird relieves the holiday chef of the burden of slaughter, and with it abolishes the step of washing the turkey. Yup, you heard right — if you are not slaughtering the turkey, don’t wash it.

Raw poultry can contaminate anything it touches with harmful bacteria. Rinsing or washing the thanksgiving turkey can spread harmful bacteria on nearby surfaces through splash or aerosolized droplets – just like a sneeze can. And just like a sneeze can spread disease, so can a turkey bath.

It doesn’t matter if your mother, aunt, or grandmother used to wash their poultry, the modern, scientific guidance from the USDA and others is to let this tradition go. Properly cooking a turkey will kill any bacteria that are lurking in the meat, and keep your family safe.

These days, Thanksgiving is at my house. I happily take after my Grandma in setting out a bounteous feast, and welcoming family and friends. And like Grandma, a turkey isn’t done until I say it’s done – only I do it by sticking the bird with my favorite thin-probe thermometer, and verifying a reading of 165F. This is the new tradition, and one I’m delighted to pass on.

This Thanksgiving, remember: wash your hands, NOT the turkey!

Note: Writing this Thanksgiving piece for barfblog, I realize it’s my 12th year doing so, and I look forward to many more! Many thanks to Doug Powell, Ben Chapman and crew for continuing to enlighten the public and public-health masses on all things food safety. When it comes to fighting barf, you are truly superheros!

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.