One reason the Globe and Mail became a terrible newspaper; giving space to columnist Leah McLaren who tries to cook lamb and poisons in-laws

The Toronto Globe and Mail used to be a decent newspaper. I was enamored with the paper and its journalists as a genetics undergrad, was thrilled when I started writing regularly for the paper in the 1990s, and then dismayed as the amount of crap published began to far outweigh the thoughtful stuf.

Once such sign of decline was the hiring of columnist Leah McLaren about a decade ago. Chapman was somewhat enamored with her self-indulgent depictions of young female life in hip Toronto; I thought it was bullshit.

Leah is still at the Globe as it continues its drawn-out decline, and wrote on Saturday that,

“This year for Christmas I poisoned the in-laws.

“They had flown all the way from Toronto to spend the holidays in London, dragging several extra bags of gifts across the Atlantic like a modern-day Santa and Mrs. Claus. In return, I had planned a feast for dinner.

“The centrepiece of the meal was a beautifully aged prime rib roast. I had purchased it, for nearly $100, from my local Notting Hill butcher, who specializes in organic, free-range, ethically farmed beef, lamb and poultry.

“I don’t eat much meat these days, but everything about that shop made me feel safe, from the quaint striped awning to the well-heeled locals queuing up for their premium giblets to the butcher with his starched, white-linen apron making small talk as he trimmed the leg of lamb. Even the store’s slogan (“Real meat naturally fed”) was heartening. What could possibly be more healthy, comforting or downright trendy than a rib roast for Christmas? As I stepped out of the shop with my several pounds of Grade A flesh in hand, I was determined to follow the butcher’s emphatic instructions: “Do not overcook.”

“And I didn’t. The prime rib was perfect – except for the 36 hours of stomach-churning misery it caused everyone who ate it.”

Leah’s lesson from all this? Don’t eat red meat.

One Moses Shuldiner responded with a letter in the Globe today, stating that Leah’s “mistake was to not inform herself of proper food handling techniques as recommended by the Toronto Public Health Department, which can be downloaded from the City of Toronto’s website. … After reading information from public health anyone can, for a nominal fee, write the test to become a certified food handler, ensuring mastery of the material.”

Shill. Mere mortals do not have to become certified food handlers to cook dinner for the in-laws, or anyone else. I cooked lamb on Christmas Eve and my 1-year-old ate it. No one barfed. Use a tip-sensitive digital meat thermometer. Next time, Leah, stick it in.

Living for, and hopefully not dying from, barbecue in Maryland

Michelle Marcotte (bottom, exactly as shown), an ex-pat Canadian and regulatory affairs consultant based in Glenn Dale, Maryland, who has worked in 40 countries, eaten well, but carefully, and never been sick, writes:

My husband was born lacking the barbecue gene on his Y chromosome; so it is up to me to either cook or fetch barbecue. Here, in the steam bath that is Maryland in the summer, sensible people fetch barbecue from a roadside truck or trailer.

Barbecue is slow cooked pork ribs, chicken or brisket. It is cooked over a wood flame, on a grill. The grill is placed down the length of a converted home heating oil tank which has been turned on its side, cut open and hinged to form a lid. When the lid of the tank is down, the resulting oven is as hot as hell.

Since barbecue is a necessity of life, I watch for a smoking truck or van parked by the side of the road. A line of cars parked on the verge and the intoxicating smell of barbecue are evidence of other barbecue-addicted persons getting a hit.

So, this week, while waiting for my whole chicken to slowly cook, I thought to observe the food safety of these itinerant barbecue kings. It is a two-person operation: the cook and the boss. You give your order to the boss and he yells to the cook to start the selection process. You stand in line and wait, unable to speak because your mouth is watering.

The cook uses a very long-handled fork to move the dripping raw, marinated meat from the cooler to the grill and then, using exceptional genius, moves the meat around the flame, placing it in various positions sufficient to result in slow-cooked deliciousness. The raw meat and chicken juice drips on the almost done and finished cooked meat on the grill. But, after each addition of raw meat, that lid comes down for a few minutes, the smoke comes up, the heat waves distort the air for 4-5 feet above the tank. I pray it is enough to kill the bacteria spread from the raw chicken over the cooked meat.

The boss takes his long handled fork and spears the meat that the cook has placed on the front of the grill. He whacks it down on the cutting board that has been in use from early morning. He puts disposable gloves on, and chops the chicken into quarters, the ribs into halves and the brisket into slices. He places it all in a foil-lined Styrofoam take-out box. He slathers it with barbecue and hot sauce. He then takes the gloves off, takes your money, puts new gloves on and starts over with the next customer.

In this scenario there was no handwashing, not even a pretense of handwashing. There was no tub of water on the trailer. The nearest meat thermometer is 10 miles away. And that’s how it is when you have a barbecue addiction. You take risks.

You take the barbecue home and eat it promptly, praying to the foodsafety gods

I feel naked without my thermometer — when cooking

Me and Misti Crane, of The Columbus Dispatch, had a chat about all things food safety yesterday, as 18 people in Ohio and another 20 in Michigan have been stricken with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7, linked to hamburger from Nebraska Beef.

As Bill Marler pointed out last night, Nebraska Beef tried to downplay the seriousness of its recall of over 265 tons of ground beef and components when it said in a press release,

"The Company has processed over 10 billion pounds of product without a confirmed customer illness."

Not sure what confirmed means, but …

What I tried to explain with Misti was that it’s not nearly enough to expect people to just handle things safety because food safety is so simple; that pathogen loads – the sheer numbers of dangerous microorganisms on product like hamburger – need to be reduced from farm-to-fork.

If you’ve ever tried making hamburgers from scratch, you’ll know why.

The opportunities for cross-contamination — a few of those E. coli O157:H7 moving from hamburger to hands or counters or utensils, and then somewhere else –are just overwhelming.

And if the burger does make it to the grill, it has to be cooked. As I said,

"I feel naked without a thermometer," and that brown meat is not necessarily cooked meat. "Color is just a terrible indicator. Over half of hamburger will turn brown before it’s actually done.”

That’s why a risk reduction approach, beginning on the farm and right through to the fork, is essential. Especially with E. coli O157:H7.