Two weeks ago: That thing when you cook your first feast and a large number of people fall ill in the next couple of days.
We established that since the first couple of cases of people throwing up had taken place on the first morning of the weekend event, before the feast, and since only (only!) three people actually started to throw up during the night following the feast, with the rest of the casualties occurring in the next three days, it was probably not anything I cooked. There is a particularly unpleasant norovirus going around at the moment, which had already wreaked havoc at Eplaheimr’s shire meeting some weeks ago. It was also reported that at an event in Nordmark at the same weekend, a lot of people had fallen ill as well. So evidence suggests that my cooking was not responsible, and people have been adamant that there was nothing wrong with the food.
I myself was among the second wave of casualties, with my husband following suit some hours later, but the still-healthy helped us marvelously and did all the packing and cleaning on our behalf. I had a lot of time to be anxious and also to think about the importance of kitchen hygiene in the SCA context.
Few SCA cooks are professional. We tend to be enthusiastic amateurs, mostly used to cooking at home or for friends. Our main aim, when cooking feasts and the like, is to create a wonderful experience for our guests. But we may treat this event as another supper party for friends, when we should, in fact, be thinking about it as a formal catering event for customers. The eaters may be your friends; but if your cooking makes them ill, they are unlikely to ask you to cook for them again. Treating the feast, and the rest of the event, as a professional gig, means that you are a little bit more likely to sharpen up and to keep an eye on the efficient and safe running of things. You’re not simply responsible for the enjoyment and health of your own family and the closest friends, but those of a large number of people, at least some of whom may not even know you. If you’re lucky, you’re feeding peers or royals of your kingdom. Giving the king the runs is bad form at the best of times. This means that while you may be more relaxed at home, and more prepared to take risks, at an event you should be very strict, even if this ends up involving you having to throw a lot of food away and you are usually reluctant to waste food.
I suspect that when I return to being the head cook, I’m going to be extremely annoying with my insistence of Proper Modern Conduct in the kitchen. From my experience, it seems that kitchen helpers are typically trusted to know, in terms of hygiene, what to do and what not to do. Most probably do know the basics, at least, but I wonder how much of that happens in the rush to get the meals ready. Indeed, it may be that even the head cook may forget the Rules, particularly if pressure mounts.
Here is a list of a few things that I, at least, will strive to observe at future events. In no particular order – they are all important.
1. If possible, use separate cold storage for cooked and uncooked dishes. If this is not possible, at least use separate shelves, ensuring that no liquids from uncooked dishes can drip down on top of the cooked ones.
2. If in doubt, store it in the cold. If you need to reheat things, make sure they are heated through and emerge hot.
3. Particular offenders: eggs, fish, shellfish, chicken, rice (!). If a dish contains raw egg, you should inform the guests about this and let them (hopefully!) make their own informed decisions about whether to eat it or not. Cool all leftovers of these quickly and store in the cold.
4. Use separate preparation surfaces for plant matter and animal matter, and for cooked and uncooked food. [Edit:] Estevana points out, absolutely rightly, that cross-contamination is an issue that should be considered when serving as well. It’s unlikely that there ever is a feast, or other event meal, with no conflicting diets or allergies. Therefore each dish should be served from its own container with its own utensils, and the container should be thoroughly washed before used for something else.
5. Wash your hands when: entering the kitchen, after handling raw egg or uncooked animal matter, switching from preparing one dish to another, before working on pastry or anything that requires a literal hands-on approach. You can’t wash your hands too often. Use antibacterial handsoap and make sure you have enough warm water. Designate a specific hand washing area.
6. Personal cleanliness. If you have long hair, tie it up, better still, cover it with a cap. Sneezing is best done outside the kitchen (followed by a hand wash). If you need to blow your nose, unless you’ve been cutting onions, you probably shouldn’t be in the kitchen in the first place (see 7). I’m considering machine sewing simple sets of hair coverings and loose smocks for my future kitchen staff to use. Modern hairnets intended for hygiene purposes should be reasonably inexpensive to acquire.
7. If you’ve been unwell in the past week, you should not be helping in the kitchen.
8. Keep your working surfaces tidy and clean. If the kitchen doesn’t come with a disinfectant, buy some. Use it. Regularly.
9. If you’ve no official business in the kitchen, you shouldn’t come in. Not only will you distract the cooks, you also risk bringing germs in as you’re unlikely to follow the same cleanliness regime as the kitchen staff are doing. This means that the children of the kitchen staff, too, should stay outside as far as possible, and pets – well, I’ll let you figure that one out yourself.
10. Arrange an efficient rota of dishwashing, and make sure that pots and pans are thoroughly cleaned between different dishes. Make sure to use hot water.
11. Hot water, hot water, hot water. If you think you might run out of it, keep a large saucepan simmering on the stove. It’ll eat up some of your cooking space, but you won’t be sorry.
12. Be careful about your use of dishcloths. They gather bacteria like mad. Bring enough to the event site that you can either wash some in between, or reserve different cloths for drying dishes and wiping of surfaces. You will not, of course, use dish cloths for mopping up the floor.
‘But we’re there to have fun!’ some might cry. Yes; and part of that fun is to ensure that in a confined place, among people who are close friends or otherwise come into contact a lot, nobody gets sick because someone in the kitchen was too distracted/couldn’t be bothered to keep the food safe. I was already sick at our own event, and I can tell you, ‘fun’ is very far removed from that.