Watch out for bagged lettuce
Lettuce that smells like your backyard pool might not be too clean.
Friday, August 12, 2011 - 00:01
OUT OF THE BAG: Taste far outweighs convenience on my dinner plate. (Photo: pamramsey/Flickr)
For anyone who knows me well, my food phobias could fill tomes and take algorithms to decipher. I'm not quite as bad as Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally," but the complication with which I attack each meal is definitely a large part of my personality and something people always remember about me. (Yes, I am the woman who will not eat condiments!)
One of my big issues is lettuce. I like lettuce. My family could tell you that I make a mean salad, but I will never eat one in a restaurant and I especially can't stand those bags of pre-packaged greens that my husband can eat by the truckload.
Besides the fact that I can't handle hot foods covered in lettuce (greasy, hot taco meat and nice, crisp shreds of lettuce? I can't mix them together), my biggest obstacle to enjoying a bowl of the leafy stuff comes from my years waiting tables at a very popular diner. Granted, this was in the early '90s, and the restaurant did get glowing reviews from the health inspectors, but it was enough to taint my taste buds for life.
Remember that a salad is served raw and with all the little come-alongs that transfer from every person and place the vegetables have encountered. This was foremost in my mind when the bus boy shredded the lettuce for our salads, cigarette in hand, filth from the dishes he had washed still caked to his hands. I was probably the only waitress who ever recommended my customers avoid the salad when this guy was working.
But that wasn't the worst. The scariest part was the lettuce itself, taken from the big box in the walk-in refrigerator, often quite brown and ready for the composter. The kitchen staff threw it in the sinks, added a chemical packet, and viola! The lettuce was green again.
While I don't know what we added to the greens to liven them up (I was too horrified to look), I do know that this experience has tainted my opinion of lettuce so badly that for 20 years I've not eaten a salad I haven't prepared myself. Or, maybe that my mother didn't make (while I watched!).
My husband loves bagged salad. I can't even stand being in the same house with him when he opens a bag, as the chemical stench makes me want to crawl the walls. It's my food service nightmare all over again. I actually tried a forkful once, under duress as my family chided my discomfort, and realized immediately that this is why people drown their vegetables with dressing: it tasted just as unhealthy and nasty as it smelled.
For those of you with a penchant for prepared salads (and don't think you're only eating these at home: many food service establishments utilize them as well), know that the radiating stench is more than likely from the chlorine wash used to clean the greens. Or is it from an acid wash? The modified atmospheric conditions that keep the oxygen out of the package and ramp up the carbon dioxide so the greens don't decompose until the bag is opened? Take your pick.
Either way, if you can get past the smell and the ickiness of bleached greens (the chlorine wash lightens the lettuce), be careful. Bagged salads have suffered several recalls over the years and been the source of outbreaks of E. coli and other illnesses caused by bacteria. A Consumer Report article shows just how much safer these pre-washed foods would be if given another scrubbing before sitting down to eat them.
Maybe my way is better. Save the plastic bag, go to the local farmers market, and buy a head of lettuce to shred yourself. For some good tips on keeping your produce safe, whether bagged or uncut, visit the FDA's website.
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