Planning The Perfect Picnic (Food Poisoning Not Included)

paris picnic
Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.

From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).

Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:

  • Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
  • Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
  • retro picnicepiclectic, Flickr
  • Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
  • Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
  • Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).

Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Mobile farmers markets: the next “big thing” in food trucks?

food trucks2010 was the Year of the Food Truck, with cities from Seattle and San Francisco to D.C. taking it to the streets, literally. While street food and taco trucks have long been a part of U.S. culture in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland, health regulations have historically made it considerably more difficult in other parts of the country. Eatocracy reports that Atlanta–despite its tight mobile cooking laws–now has a “hybrid” approach that enables food trucks to exist, albeit in a different form. Could 2011 become the Year of the Mobile Farmers Market?

For the uninitiated, street food technically refers to food that is prepared (cooked, if applicable) and sold from a street cart, stall, or permanent stand. Food trucks are essentially mobile street food, and can change location from day-to-day, or remain parked in a stationary spot. These are not your “lunch” trucks of old, selling flabby sandwiches and processed, grab-and-go items. Today’s food truck offers food prepared from seasonal produce and other ingredients likely sourced from local family farms.

Until recently, state and county health departments largely prohibited street eats due to fears regarding potential foodborne illness. It’s harder to regulate things like sanitation and temperature control in a non-stationary kitchen, but far from impossible. Thanks to the open-mindedness of city officials across the country, enterprising chefs and other food industry professionals have been able to give mobile food operations a shot, the most successful of which have gone on to achieve national acclaim. Portland, Oregon, has been so supportive, there are now permanent designated locations for food cart clusters.

But even as we’re becoming more of a food truck nation, it’s still an uphill battle. Eatocracy states that Chicago is just one city making it next to impossible for actual cooking to be done on-site. Instead, food must be pre-packaged, which is a buzz-kill for many budding entrepreneurs. Atlanta requires convoluted logistical wrangling (trucks selling cooked-to-order food must change location every half-hour, nor operate at more than two locations a day) as a deterrent. One local farm’s solution: focus on the raw ingredient, not the end product.

[Photo credit: Flickr user star5112]


food trucksRiverview Farms of Ranger, Georgia, has created a mobile farmers market that brings sustainably-grown produce to various locations in Atlanta. As creator Elmer Veith puts it, “We’re going to bring the farm field to the neighborhood, so you don’t have to come to us.”

Veith retrofitted a Mac Tools truck to create Riverview’s Farm Mobile. Customers enter the truck from the rear, and pay before exiting at the front. The sides are outfitted with shelves for produce, as well as the farm’s cornmeal and grits. There’s a freezer for Riverview’s grassfed beef and heritage Berkshire pork. Other offerings may include bread, pasture-raised chickens, free-range eggs, and cheese from other local food artisans and farms.

Customers get updates on Farm Mobile’s location and that day’s product via email, Facebook and Twitter. The social media aspect is a key part of the success of today’s food trucks. Yet Farm Mobile is subject to less regulations, because they’re not selling prepared food. They are, however, licensed by state authorities, and require permission from property owners to park on their land. If outfits like Farm Mobile (or Richmond, Virginia’s Farm Bus) catch on, can we expect to see more markets on wheels servicing urban areas? Greg Smith, President of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, hopes so.

“Street food adds life and vibrancy to the city,” he says, predicting that in the future, “There will be multiple ‘food truck lots’ around the city and the trucks might move on a daily basis from lot to lot.” The Coalition, which seeks to help entrepreneurs break into the industry, is yet another sign that mobile eating is here to stay. TruxMap is an iPhone app that lets users hunt down their favorite food trucks, while dedicated sites such as Food Carts Portland are attracting legions of fans. The best way to show support, however, is to start eating on the street. Check out Eater.com, to see if there’s a food or farm truck (coming) near you.

To sign up for Farm Mobile updates, click here.

Five tips to reduce your health risk while eating street food

It was the 18th century food writer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For certain cultures, street food is more than just a cheap, tasty, easy way to fuel the body. It’s part of a daily ritual, a way to catch up on neighborhood or community gossip, a means of eking out a living to provide for one’s family. By eating foreign street food, you get a sense of the social fabric and gender roles of a community or culture, but what about the health risks?

Some travelers equate a love of street food with a latent wish to sightsee whilst wearing an adult diaper. They steer clear of anything sold from a vendor, or resembling fruit, vegetable, or beverage not from a bottle (although when it comes to drinking water, you should always err on the side of caution, and there is something to be said about peeling or washing produce to avoid pesticide residue, since many developing nations use chemicals banned in the U.S.). What these folks may not realize is that foodborne illnesses such as E.coli, salmonella, and listeria don’t discriminate. FDA statistics show you’re more likely to get sick from preparing food at home than from dining in a domestic restaurant.

Is street food inherently more risky than eating in a restaurant when you travel? Sometimes, and it depends. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are certainly more at risk of getting ill, and may be best off avoiding street eats. But there are certain precautionary measures healthy travelers can take before scarfing their tacos or mystery-meat kebabs that will minimize the chances of bringing home more than just a suitcase full of sweatshop-made tchotchkes as souvenirs. Read on.

1. Is there a crowd? Just like at home, go where the locals go, as they obviously know where to find the good stuff. But high volume also means that food is being prepared fresh, rather than sitting around attracting flies and turning into something useful for waging biological warfare.

2. Are basic hygiene practices being implemented by the vendor(s)? In Mexico, I’ve frequently observed street vendors slipping clean plastic bags over plates. With every order, a new bag is used, then discarded at the end of the meal. It’s an eco-nightmare, but it’s a lot more sanitary than dunking a plate in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish. Also bear in mind that in many parts of the world, the left hand performs double-duty as toilet paper. I can’t say it enough: Look at the sanitation practices before ordering.

You’ll often find co-workers whose sole responsibility is to handle money, to avoid cross-contaminating food (this isn’t always the case, however, so sometimes you’ll just have to–literally–suck it up). Once, when I accidentally handed my money to the wrong guy, he turned his hand upside-down to avoid contact with my filthy coins.

3. Is the stand or cart clean and well-maintained? Is hot food kept hot or cooked to order, and is cold food cold? Is purified water or ice used for beverages and frozen treats?

4. Are the ingredients fresh? If you’ve got eyes, a nose, and some tastebuds, you can figure this out for yourself. I look at the condiments and garnishes to determine if I want to eat at a given stand or cart. If I see crusty bowls of salsa, dessicated limes, slimy herbs, or flies congregated on any raw foods I might potentially eat, I’m out of there.

Stick to local specialties. One of the greatest joys of travel is eating regional ingredients or dishes. It also stands to reason that ordering seafood in an inland desert is a calculated risk. Raw protein products (egg, meat, poultry, fish, fresh cheeses) in general are to be avoided in the Third World. What about dishes like ceviche, where the acid in the citrus juice denatures (breaks down proteins, killing some potential pathogens in the process) the fish? It’s still risky, because technically it’s an uncooked food, and only application of heat over 145 degrees can totally annihilate anything potentially deadly lurking in fish. Again, use good judgment based on freshness of ingredients and basic sanitation, but remember that you can’t eliminate all risk.

If you’re in a coastal region, it pays to do a bit of homework on the cleanliness of the local fresh and ocean water supplies; algae blooms or cholera outbreaks will be widely reported. Try to avoid eating raw river fish or seafood, or river fish/seafood from just offshore; remember that many developing island nations and coastal regions use high tide as their toilet. If you’re eating pork in the Third World, always make sure it’s well-cooked. While trichinosis has effectively been eradicated from our domestic industrial pork supply, the disease is prevalent in other parts of the world. And not to get too graphic, but you’ll often find pigs in rural parts of the developing world lurking around latrines, searching for a snack.

Fresh ingredients don’t necessarily mean great food, but it helps. Delicious street food is ulimately a reflection of the loving care that goes into its preparation. Are the carnitas slightly crispy on the outside, with an interior succulent with greasy goodness? Is the masa in the tamales moist, with a sweet, earthy corn flavor? Are the noodles slightly toothsome, the herbs fresh and bright-tasting, the broth fragrant and piping hot? These things matter.

5. Use hand sanitizer before eating, take probiotics with live active cultures prophylactically, and pack a broad-spectrum gastrointestinal antibiotic and Imodium, just in case. I’m just sayin’.

For more information on food safety, go to this page on the USDA website.

The hidden danger of restaurant kitchens

It’s often the dirtiest thing in the kitchen. Infrequently changed, always moist and often with raw food stuck to it, it’s a breeding ground for bacteria, yet it’s the very thing that diligent kitchen workers use to wipe their food preparation surfaces “clean.”

What is it? The dishcloth or sponge.

A new survey by the UK’s Health Protection Agency has found that a large percentage of dishcloths in restaurant kitchens contain potentially harmful bacteria. The HPA visited 120 kitchens and examined 133 cloths. They found that 86 cloths contained fecal bacteria, 21 had E. coli, 6 had Staphylococcus aureus, and 5 had Listeria. Even worse, 24 had been used both on preparation surfaces for raw meat and ready-to-eat foods.

The HPA warns that even restaurants that disinfect their cloths regularly aren’t doing enough, because simply soaking a cloth in bleach doesn’t remove the tiny food particles that attract bacteria. As soon as the cloth is taken out of the disinfectant, the bacteria start coming back.

So next time you’re in a restaurant, or your own kitchen for that matter, don’t ask how fresh the fish is, ask how fresh the dishcloth is.

[Image courtesy Anna Sacheri]