CLEVELAND, Ohio – Remember reading fables? Most were a little gruesome, but all tried to teach a bit of wisdom. With the improving weather making us ready to party, picnic, and play, I have a real-life fable to share, oxymoronic pun intended.
An out-of-state friend from way back was visiting for the weekend. I planned all kinds of fun. We went to 78th Street Studios Second Friday open house and finished our first evening together with close friends in Lakewood. It was lovely.
After sleeping in Saturday morning, we hit one of Cleveland’s many marvelous brunch spots where the food and drink did not disappoint. Scrumptious! Afterward, I took her downtown to marvel at Heinen’s second floor wine and beer department under that glorious dome. So beautiful and tasty!
For Saturday night, I had secured tickets to a performance at Music Box Supper Club and made a pre-show dinner reservation. My wife drove, I got in the back seat, and we picked up another friend on the way. It was gonna be a good night.
Suddenly, a low rumble began in my depths. It was both familiar and frightening, but I pushed back in denial. Well. Just no. I will have my fun evening, doggone it.
In a short time, reality could not be denied. I had food poisoning. It ended our night, wasted good tickets, and horrified anyone who entered the ladies’ restroom at Music Box. I’ll kindly spare you the ugly details. Besides, my editors don’t want such language in the Forum section. But you would’ve been impressed with the covert mission my wife and friends concocted to extract me from the supper club as discreetly as possible. They whisked me home, where my torturous nightmare continued until three in the morning, followed by three days of yogurt and applesauce.
Even now, three weeks later, I’m still avoiding greens, and my entire intestinal biome feels bruised and tired. The only bright side is I lost six pounds, and I’ve not gained it back. So, I’m closer to my weight goal for an upcoming beach vacation, which is cool, but the means were sheer agony.
So, what’s the moral to this tale?
Certainly, not to point fingers or critique our beloved Cleveland restaurants. They need all the customer support and good employees they can get right now. I would never discourage dining out – it’s one of my favorite things to do. And no – even though you’re dying to know – I’m not telling you where I ate nor what I had, because that tainted food is long gone by now.
Today, I’m going for a two-part take away – Be Warned & Be Wise. Let me explain …
Food-borne illness is the proper term for the gut-wrenching result of consuming contaminated foods. Our federal government names a dozen types of bacteria and viruses responsible for food poisoning illness, hospitalization, and death, but I was familiar with only four: E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and norovirus (commonly called stomach flu.) You can check the list yourself here.
Knowing the culprits is nerdy fun but not that helpful. Knowing the symptoms enables us to identify whether our body is dealing with food poisoning or another type of illness, so here I’ll refer you to the Cleveland Clinic’s food poisoning page to learn more, because nobody can explain it better.
Now, let’s you and I talk brass tacks. We go to restaurants based on things like preference, taste buds, location, appetite, budget, and perhaps recommendations. Sometimes, we pick places based on foodie articles or online ratings. The thing is – these motives bypass what may be happening in restaurant kitchens.
Two websites can inform the innocent consumer – and possibly make one paranoid, but all things in moderation, OK? Our city and county conduct food facility inspections on a regular basis. Inspectors check critical and noncritical food handling processes. For example, they look at how food is stored and at what temperature. They check the cleanliness of knives, slicers, can openers and work surfaces. The resulting reports are available online.
You can find the city of Cleveland’s page here. For the rest of Cuyahoga County see this site.
Now, before you look up your favorites, I want to share a couple insights that came after I read multiple reports. It’s the critical repeat findings that are the most troublesome. A bag of onions on the cooler floor is no big deal in my book. It’s the critical violations found in consecutive inspections that can be a warning to diners.
I don’t understand how a restaurant owner / manager tolerates kitchen staff who make dangerous mistakes over and over, but I am wondering if it’s because the training is costly and / or personnel changes over too often. Throwing suspicious food away must be hard when you have razor thin profit margins, but I would think a bad reputation could be more costly in the long term.
There are no absolutes to decreasing our chances of food poisoning when eating out. Here are my personal suggestions:
Check recent inspection reports at the two sites above and consider your choice carefully.
Choose menu items that have less contamination potential: more fully cooked proteins, fried anything (that heat can kill bacteria and viruses pronto), and ice-free drinks or bottled beverages.
I’ll be avoiding anything cut with a slicing machine (like a deli slicer) – evidently those are hard to keep clean (see inspections).
If you see translucent or wet middles in any food that is not a very hot soup, there’s a chance it isn’t fully cooked. Leave it uneaten or ask for it to be cooked longer. When you order, you can request items to be extra crispy or well done and this may help.
Home kitchens need to follow the same rules. And before we get slap happy with burgers at backyard barbecues, check out the USDA website on food safety. If nothing else – please, for the love of eats, use two spatulas when grilling – one for raw products and a second one for cooked items. Please.
Although experience is often the best teacher, when it comes to food poisoning, I say learn from others. Be warned and be wise, friends. Bon Appetit!
Leslie Kouba, a lifetime resident of Northeast Ohio and mother of four completely grown humans, enjoys writing, laughing, and living in Cleveland with her wife, five cats, and a fat-tailed gecko named Zennis. You can reach her at LeslieKoubaPD@gmail.com.