cooking safely (at a $152 discount)

Hobbies, not jobbies” began to manifest the summer after high school–I’d discovered lifeguarding, CPR, and First Aid.  With a taste for picking up specialty skills and liking it,  I’d begun hunting for more certifications and found that the local community college in my town (Tunxis) offered a bartending class to anyone 18+.  Sliding flaming shots down the bar?  Twirling dual bottles of expensive liquor as I expertly doled out drinks to awed crowds?  Body shots?!  I needed a line to sign.

Since I’d been looking for skills to help me acquire a second job, this is how I’d spun it to my Dad, who–in very dad-like manner–immediately shot the $300 course (more than a week’s pay) down as a “bad idea”.

“You want to spend your time dealing with drunks?  How about a food safety course instead?'” he’d offered, “If you take that, I’ll pay for it.”  More interested in calling my Dad’s bluff on the $152 course fee than the actual subject matter, I agreed and went down to register for the class.  And the boating course that still allows me to pilot boats up to 65′ in CT waters.  No joke.

Warning: Cheap, interesting classes offered at community colleges can be an unwelcome gateway to the Hobbies, not jobbies lifestyle.

The coworker that never was. Thanks dad.

I found the class fairly easy, surprisingly interesting, and adequately terrifying.  While the course was common sense and logical (and for those of us who love sequencing and color-coding, an absolute thrill), it became very clear that while I was there to get my fix of being patted on the head for a correct answer, the rest of the class was not.  This style of kitchen cooking was going to be a summer gig for me; my classmates were almost entirely lifers, and not out of passion for the culinary arts.  The bored looks, the disinterest, and the private comment from one woman–a cook at the local Marriott–that it was “crazy” to expect that if she “dropped a filet mignon on the floor” that she was going to “just throw it out” because it was an expensive piece of meat and the “grill is going to kill everything on there anyway” was enough to make me think long and hard before “ever setting foot in a chain restaurant again”. (Nerd point of order: we’d just learned about chemical-born food illness, so no, the grill wouldn’t.)

Armed with food safety knowledge I can now whip up amazing dinners like this with confidence.

Armed with food safety knowledge I can now whip up amazing dinners like this with confidence.

But I’d gotten my card, landed my gig, and worked the summer away, 90 hours a week between lifeguarding and cooking.  And I forgot about that stuff.

Until, that is, I decided to retake the Washington State Food Handler Course so I could prove that my knowledge to not slice lettuce in raw chicken juice transferred over state lines.  With the advent of the “interwebs”, I was not only able to take the class online, but I was able to take it for FREE.  (The certification is $10, but you can take the course and the test before that step for free~)

Knowledge, like a man who can cook, is sexy.  Vibrio vulnificus is decidedly unsexy.

Knowledge, like a man who can cook, is sexy. Vibrio vulnificus is not.

I was amazed at how much I remembered but also at how much I’d implemented these practices in my own kitchen.  When my friends come over for dinner they laugh at my multiple sponges, my separate meat and vegetable cutting boards, and the fact that I insist on washing dishes in the dishwasher (wash, rinse, and disinfect).  I stock all my foods based on FIFO (first in, first out), and you will never find raw meat anywhere but on the bottom shelf of the fridge.  And it’s not like this takes effort on my part–it just makes sense, and instead of trial-and-erroring my way through learning to cook safely, I was fortunate enough to learn this stuff early because my Dad ponied up the cash to teach me something.

It took me 40 minutes to complete the online course and the test, and since cooking and eating is something we do our entire lives, I encourage you to invest a lunch break and take it too–I promise that you’ll learn something.  Here are my top 3 subjects:

  1. Food storage. The space in your home fridge is likely pretty limited, but that doesn’t mean your safety has to come second to what-fits-where.  Learn how to store foods to avoid cross-contamination.
  2. Review of the temperature danger zone.  This is a big one-minimum cooking temperatures, cooling and reheating procedures, and learning to minimize bacterial growth.  Probably the most important bits I’ve taken away come from here (and the most interesting information, in my opinion).  If you’ve ever seen me freak out when food is sitting on the picnic table for 4 hours, you’ll now know why.
  3. Know who is cooking your food.  Being mean-spirited is not the intent, but after you see the real-time 20-second clip on how to wash your hands, you will gain a great appreciation for skilled cooks and chefs and a healthy aversion to restaurants that employ people who, again, need a 20-second real-time clip on how to wash your hands.

So take some time and learn (or review) how to safely handle food.  Again, it’s something you’ll be doing your whole life, and again, this short online course is FREE.  That’s a pretty incredible  resource the state is providing.  And these practices go beyond the kitchen–I’ve used these principles when packing for the road, perparing food for a backpack, or cooking on the river.  The list goes on, but right now I’ve got to go give my Dad a ring and thank him for spotting me that $152 thirteen years ago.  Turns out it wasn’t a bluff after all.

Want to learn basic food safety?  Click the links in the post and have at it!  This is the basic course; if you’d like the more in-depth course I took (which includes stocking procedures, food assessment, and knowledge on specific food borne illnesses) check your local community college or cruise the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals for more information.

 

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