Published 5:00 pm Thursday, December 6, 2012

I'm scared of my kitchen.

There are the common culprits: revolving blades in the blender, red hot elements on my stove, the black hole of the sink drain, a twelve-inch carving knife and the ever ominous meat tenderizer.

But, what really scares me are the things in my kitchen I can't see.

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Thanksgiving is over two weeks past and I still have the feeling that raw turkey juice is lurking somewhere under the edge of my counter top, just waiting to seep out when I go to wash my salad greens.

In my mind, meat is not ranked by flavor, tenderness or ease of preparation. Instead, I somehow have concocted a hierarchy based solely on my own perceptions of a meat's ability to harbor enemy bacteria and diseases that are trying to immigrate into my life undetected. This is war, folks, and unless we know which meats harbor the enemy, the fight against E. coli, salmonella and food-born pathogens can not be won.

They may look tasty and harmless, but lurking in the tendons of their juicy goodness are colonies of foreign bacteria, waiting to strike when we least expect it. For my own safety, I have created a perfectly sane list of meat enemies and friends.

Beef is my friend; I feel I have nothing to fear from it. In fact, I've been known to eat fresh-ground chuck medium-rare. Next comes fish and pork. They aren't friends, but they aren't on my watch list either. I simply proceed with caution in those waters, enjoying sushi as long as it doesn't smell funny.

Poultry is the real enemy here. Between E. coli on eggs and salmonella, which is most certainly multiplying by the second on every inch of that juicy thigh meat, there is no way I can feel safe around it.

Of course, I use to believe that it was an enemy to be easily overcome. Chicken and I lived together in peace and harmony…

Until that fateful day when I bought some bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts that were on sale. They were exceptionally cheap. I was feeling brave. Pride comes before a fall.

I whipped out my Joy of Cooking and read the very detailed instructions on how to skin and de-bone the breasts, twice, studying the diagrams as if my life depended on it. The plan was to process the breasts as quickly as possible. And then quarantine them, two at a time, in Ziploc bags in the freezer. It was fail-safe.

At the time, I lived in a 150 square foot apartment. It was California. (It's amazing what you'll do for cheap rent.) Besides, it was only three blocks from the beach. My kitchen consisted of a tiny hotel sink, one of those half-size stoves, a refrigerator and just under three feet of counter top. My facilities were inadequate.

But the chicken breasts were prepared. As soon as I started lifting them out of their Styrofoam tray, slimy pink juices started dripping down my hand, onto the cutting board and – Oh, horrors! – off the cutting board and down the front of both of my cabinet doors.

It only got worse. The pile of skin that had been peacefully laying in the bottom of the sink while I feverishly worked to finish the breasts, took on a life of its own when I tried to throw it in the trash can, slipping out of my hands and onto the floor.

I usually have good success with Joy of Cooking, but somehow reading how to de-bone a chicken did not translate well for me and there were several breasts that ended up looking like they'd been through the meat grinder by the time I was done. My kitchen was oozing with raw chicken juice. It was on the floor, on the handles of the fridge, on my dinner table. Some had been flung on the ceiling during a struggle with an especially stubborn bone. It was everywhere.

And then there was the perennial problem of how to bag the chicken without getting goo on the outside of the Ziploc bags. I finally gave up trying to keep one hand clean to seal them and just shoved them in two-fisted as fast as I could, washing off all the bags before I put them in the freezer.

After closing the freezer door, I used an exorbitant amount of bleach to scrub my thirty-square foot kitchen. It took hours. And, when I was done, it sparkled.

This was not a victory. Over the powerful clean smell of bleach, the scent of raw chicken was still lurking in the corners. I caught hints of it the next day as I was eating my cereal. I felt sure there was a sticky spot on my sink handle when I went to fill the kettle the following week. A telltale pink drip down the inside of my fridge seemed to have resurfaced despite all my scrubbing.

As I lay on my bed, looking at my kitchen before falling asleep, I was sure that, though frozen, those de-boned chicken breasts were still planning a revolt of some sort. Perhaps a stealth escape from the freezer. They'd break into the refrigerator and hide themselves in my lettuce crisper and cheese drawer, blending in undetected for days as their evil salmonella juices seeped in with the rest of my food.

I never trusted chicken again. I always cook it a little too long. I always scrub my hands a little too pink after handling it. I buy it pre-cooked, regardless of cost, whenever I can. I don't know how they did it in the face of my superior technological and intellectual advancements, but somehow those chicken breasts beat me into submission.

I almost ended a perfectly good relationship because of my perfectly logical fear of chicken. Never mind that the fellow was cooking me dinner, when I found out he was thawing a whole chicken in the sink, while he was at work, I almost said “good-bye.” How can you trust a man who thaws chicken in the sink?! The water will surely warm, the bacteria will surely awaken and they breed so fast, before you know it, they would be unstoppable.

Of course, my ever level-headed mother was able to talk me down. She reminded me that when she grew up it was common to thaw meat on the counter. (In fact, I remembered back to my own childhood, seeing the innocent pack of red hamburger sitting on a plate on the counter, waiting to be cooked.) Had she ever gotten sick? No. (Had I ever gotten sick? No.) Yes, of course, it is better to be safe. But, come on. It is not like there are roving bands of shiftless salmonella just waiting to get me.

Or are they? I can just see them now, digging tunnels under my best defenses. They are crawling along the underside of my counters to drip onto once clean Tupperware containers. They are hiding behind my spice rack, waiting to catch a ride with the next unsuspecting hand that wants to add white pepper to the soup.