Would your kitchen pass a health inspection?

The night before a health inspector came to my apartment, I had a
brief nightmare about a grim-faced woman in a lab coat that crawled across my
kitchen floor with a pair of tweezers. So when it came time to greet the actual
inspector, Beth Torin, one of the first things I uttered to her had a slightly
unaccommodating air about it: “Your presence in my home terrifies me.”

Torin, a forceful, chatty woman in
her late 30s, reached into her bag to produce her badge and said, “My mother
tells me the same thing.”

Some of Americans have been
thinking about kitchen sanitation with greater frequency ever since July, when
the New York City health department started requiring restaurants to post
letter grades signifying their inspection scores. (An A denotes zero to 13
points worth of violations; B, 14 to 27; C, 28 or more.)

But has this increased awareness of
restaurant cleanliness had any trickle-down to our own kitchens? The societal
function of posting health-code violations in public would seem to have the
same double edge as that of gossip columns: In some instances, these broadcasts
humiliate sinners into better behaviour; but in others, they make the sins look
normal, and thus open the floodgates.

Eager to find out where my
Manhattan kitchen falls on the continuum, I called the Department of Health and
Mental Hygiene and arranged for a restaurant inspector to visit recently. I
asked them to overlook any stipulations that would not apply to a home, like
the signs in restrooms that remind employees to wash their hands. Restaurants
get no warning before an inspection; so, to handicap myself, we decided that
Torin would arrive one hour before I was to serve an elaborate lunch to four
friends.

I had 27 hours to prepare, or
should I say to obsess. I scrubbed and scoured for nine hours.

When Torin asked if she could wash
her hands. I proudly pointed to my kitchen sink, where I’d fastidiously placed
canisters of antibacterial wipes and liquid soap.

I was dismayed to hear: “You’re not
allowed to wash your hands in the kitchen sink. I coughed when I came in the
door. Who knows where my hands have been?” Wherever they’d been, the germs they
carried with them were now in the same sink I use to rinse lettuce. If the
sleigh ride that was this inspection had just been given its initial push down
the slope, it then proceeded to plunge, luge-like, down a sluice gate of
detritus-flecked squalor. Most disastrously (that is to say, 38 points’ worth
of disaster), Torin determined that my refrigerator – which, despite some
dripping condensation during the summer, has always been perfectly adequate for
my needs – was warmer than the required 41 degrees, as was the food inside. I
didn’t know I had this problem because I don’t keep a thermometer in my fridge
(2 points).

These struck me as mostly
legitimate violations, as did my broken meat thermometer (8 points). But then
Torin started rifling off a series of less galvanizing concerns: The towels I
use to wipe my counters were not soaking in a sanitizing solution (5 points),
my cutting board had many tiny nicks and grooves, and thus may breed bacteria
(2 points). I realized that I needed to start playing hardball if I wanted to
avoid earning the nickname Typhoid Henry. Seeing cat food in a cabinet, she
asked if I had a cat (5 points), I said yes but did not reveal that my
boyfriend and I actually have two (10 points). Torin totted up my violations on
a worksheet: 77. Flunkadelic. She offered some faint praise, including the heart-warmers
“Your covered garbage can is great” and “You didn’t obstruct me.”

The next day, I spoke by phone with
Torin, who was concerned she had been too hard on me. She had docked me for a
few things specific to restaurants – e.g., 5 points for my not wearing a head
covering – and she was feeling more charitable about my refrigerator.

“I can see you don’t cook a lot,”
she said. “You didn’t have much food, but a lot of wine.” Deciding not to explain
that I’d nervously divested my fridge of two garbage bags’ worth of items
before her arrival, I instead tried to impress upon her the dictates of the
go-go bohemian life, where the refrigerator is considered full if it contains a
lemon peel and a jar of olives. She said she had a new score for me.

But before she gave it to me, I
levelled with her: “Over the weekend, I’m going to fix most of these
violations, which should be easy. But I’m not going to stop washing my hands in
the sink, and I’m not soaking my wiping towels in bleach, and I’m not killing
my cat. What I’m saying is, I’m a 20 at heart. Knowing that, would you
personally, being both neurotic and a food safety inspector, ever come to eat
at my 20?”

Torin said: “Totally honestly? I
wouldn’t eat in your apartment because you have a cat.”

We resumed a discussion we’d had
about how cats can blithely go from litter box to tabletop or kitchen counter,
transporting bacteria. But we kept talking, and she soon changed her tune. “You
know what?” she said. “I’ll give you the cat if you swear you’ll wash your hands
in the bathroom. Then I’d come over. You’ve got to eat somewhere.”

Post-inspection, I’ve made a few
changes. I’ve lowered the temperature of my refrigerator. I’ve bought a new
meat thermometer. I’ve nicknamed the friskier of the two cats Five Points. I’m
thrilled that public places of eating are held to higher standards than homes,
and that the full fruition of these high standards results in the first letter
of my last name. But when it comes to my own environs, I’m hoping my patrons
understand that I’m no Hester Prynne. At 41, I’m still a C. That’s C for
cleanish.