The other day, I left a Guilford County commissioners meeting at about 8:40 p.m. and, on the way home, I had just enough time to stop in at Deep Roots and get a few things I needed. I got some chicken, bacon, cranberries, unsweetened coconut milk and a couple of other items.
At Deep Roots, where the staff is very conscientious, they are doing their best to save the planet, so they always ask you if you want a bag, and it’s more like a test than an option: You’re never supposed to say “Yes,” because, if you needed a bag in the first place then you should have brought your own reusable, 100-percent earth-friendly bag. If you say you want a bag, they look at you like, “And can I club some baby seals for you as well?”
Anyway, I got my stuff, drove home, brought the items in the house and put them away. Then I started watching Thursday Night Football and doing a few other things. About 11 p.m., I decided to make a salad. I wanted some bacon in it, so I opened the fridge and looked, but didn’t see the bacon I’d just bought. I looked behind this item and behind that item and, to my absolute horror, I realized the bacon was nowhere to be found. It turns out, I’d brought home the bacon but I hadn’t actually brought the bacon into the home.
Oh no, I thought. It’s probably still in the car.
I went out to my car and, using my iPhone as a flashlight, I looked for it. Finally, I looked between the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat, and there, wedged in on the floor, was the bacon.
By now it was warm to the touch and I got this sinking feeling that my bacon was no longer safe to eat after sitting out in the car all that time. I knew at this point that time was of the essence, so I ran inside and threw it into the refrigerator as fast as I could.
But was the bacon still good? Was it still tasty nourishing bacon or was it now just a seething batch of deadly bacteria swimming around in a plastic bacon container?
I was at a loss what to do. On the one hand, you don’t want to die from something you ate but on the other hand you don’t want to throw out perfectly good unopened food you just bought. And I should mention that this wasn’t just some cheap ordinary Smithfield bacon; it was Applegate Organic Hickory-smoked Uncured Sunday Bacon, which runs me over $8 a package and comes from animals that have been extremely well treated and loved until the day that they happily and willingly gave their lives so I could enjoy bacon in my salad.
So I certainly didn’t want to throw it out if it was still good.
I started reading on the internet about how long meat could be left out and still be safe to eat. Some people said it’s bad if it’s out for an hour and a half; others said four hours. Some internet posters wrote that it depends on the temperature where it was left. One pointed out that meats like steak can be left out longer than things like ground beef because there’s less surface area in the steak and fewer places for the bacteria to get in. Another wrote that cured bacon stays good unrefrigerated much longer than uncured.
I didn’t know who was right, so I asked some coworkers the next day and one said three hours was the absolute limit for unrefrigerated meat and another said that, even when left out eight hours, the meat was still OK.
Now, you can’t trust either internet people or co-workers of course, so, I thought, “Well, who can you trust?” And the answer came to me: The county’s health director would know what to do.
So I emailed Guilford County Health Director Merle Green…
I had a package of bacon (uncured) I bought at Deep Roots after the meeting at 8:45 pm. At 10:50, I realized I’d left it in the car. (It was about 65 degrees outside). I put it in the refrigerator right away but did not know whether I could still cook it and eat it. Thx.
She wrote back …
At that temp, and for that short amount of time, we feel comfortable that the bacon will be perfectly fine. Next time though, buy a bag of grapefruit for breakfast – we want your heart to stay healthy, and not become clogged with bacon fat… sorry to have to give you the bad news with the good (but that’s what I have to do)…
Now, I was shocked. I mean, official health people always say that food left out is bad. I knew before I sent that email that the Health Department would say that you definitely could not eat it. They always err on the side of caution. But I was relieved to hear the answer, and I cooked the bacon and ate it, enjoying it fully knowing that the Health Department would never say it was safe if there was any chance otherwise.
After I ate it, though, I had a thought that sent me into a panic: Sometimes I write things that are critical of county government and even of that department, and it occurred to me that it could be that they only told me the bacon was fine because the Guilford County Health Department wanted me dead. That caused me great concern and I went to sleep that night extremely worried, but fortunately I woke up alive the next morning.
They were right! And it hadn’t been a plot to kill me after all – it worked out fine.
The whole event led me to a realization: that we are all waaaaaay too cautious when it comes to food safety. One guy I read on the internet said, look at Asia: You’ll go to an outdoor market there and basically they leave meat out on the counter unrefrigerated all day long and they sell it and nothing ever bad comes from that. In China, they’ll even eat something called “100-year-old-eggs.” (I don’t even want to know what’s up with that.)
I remembered back to when I lived in England one summer. I was amazed that they never put butter in the refrigerator. They just left it out on the counter all the time. It freaked me out and I would never put it on my bread, but the English people never seemed to drop dead.
David Letterman once had a guy on his show, a man who kept an uneaten hamburger for seven years. He didn’t do anything to it; he just left it on the plate out in his room for seven years. It kind of just petrified and then didn’t change. Really, it looked fine – just like an ordinary hamburger and fries – and, of course, no one ate it, but it looked just like any old hamburger you might find.
Rhino Times Managing Editor Elaine Hammer told me this amazing story from when her father used to be in the Navy. They were on a ship during the Korean War and they found some eggs that were from World War II. They didn’t know if they were OK to eat. Now, World War II ended in 1945 and the Korean War ran from 1950 to 1953. Elaine said she isn’t sure but, basically, the best guess is that the eggs were like seven to 10 years old. They had been on the ship in the freezer all that time, and the food staff cooked the eggs and served them to the crew and no one got sick or died or anything.
And, when she told me that story, the scales fell from my eyes and the whole big food industry conspiracy became clear to me. Everything started to make sense. All of these food “safety” rules are just myths perpetuated by the food makers to keep us spending more money on food. They do that by telling us to throw out perfectly good food.
I mean, one clue is this: According to the USDA, pizza can only be left out at room temperature for up to two hours before it is unsafe to eat.
What? Throw pizza out after two hours? I don’t think so. At Duke, we would find leftover pieces of pizza in the box three or four days later and eat it and be fine.
If you think about it, when cheese molds, the food makers just re-label it as blue cheese and sell it for a higher price. If it’s bread that’s gone sour, they’ll just rename it “Sourdough bread” and sell it like it is a better, fancier bread.
So my advice to you is this. Never worry about food “safety” rules. Just enjoy. Enjoy, that cottage cheese in the back of the fridge from 1978. Enjoy the flounder you forgot to cook from 2010.
That’s my new philosophy of life and food and it’s also my advice to you: Don’t listen to all this bull they try and feed you. The real rule is this: Basically foods keep just fine for a few years on the counter, seven or eight years in the refrigerator and essentially forever in the freezer.
I need to wrap this column up now because I’m feeling kind of queasy. It’s probably just that I’m may be coming down with the flu or someth
[Editor’s note: We here at the Rhino Times have been attempting to get Yost to send the remainder of the column but as of yet we have been unable to contact him.]