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Holiday Potlucks: Where Bacteria (and Douchebags) Party

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Is it okay to eat this? | Photo by roland via Flickr

In what has to be one of the grossest holiday-themed articles published this year on the LA Times (whose online content may or may not be controlled by gnomes) comes the breakdown of bacteria, as it can perhaps be found on the buffet table of your next holiday gathering.

Behold the cornucopia of germs and pathogens poised like Grinches to steal your merriment and lay siege to your body! Or, as the completely un-sensational Times puts it: "it's a minefield of food-poisoning bacteria waiting to wreak havoc." In this era of hand-sanitizer dispensers next to the shopping carts at your grocery store and overall germ-phobia we seem to have first forgotten that regular contact with minor germs makes our immune systems stronger, and second that the holidays are going to be a lot less fun if we start grilling our party guests on how often they washed their hands while making the spinach dip in a breadbowl.

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Just how big of problem are illnesses reported after eating homemade treats at a party? Turns out not so much, since the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health "gets far fewer reports of food poisoning from potlucks than it does from restaurants."

So are party goers really at risk to develop diseases brought on by things like E. Coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter?

Meh, probably not, despite the horrific scenarios the Times offers us: "Eating turkey and stuffing made by the co-worker who doesn't wash his hands after using the bathroom or the gingerbread trifle created by the friend whose clothes are perpetually covered in pet hair is asking for trouble" and "One woman tells of listening to a hostess boast about how her 3-year-old triplets helped make the dish. Another recalls the horror of seeing the dirt-encrusted kitchen of a former co-worker -- one who loved to entertain." Seriously, who are you freaks who are making these rash judgments about the people you party with, and using evidence for contamination like clothes with pet hair on them to deduce that their potluck offering is tainted? Sounds like what you folks really are are just plain assholes.

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And the Times acknowledges that feeling this leery of Aunt Joan the cat lover's rum balls is mostly in the head: "Actual risk has little to do with it. Many potluck haters acknowledge that they've never had even one terrible food poisoning incident that drove them away -- they're simply skeeved out by the whole idea." Some are turned off by the idea that the food--even cooked dishes--had to travel there by car because, you know, food shouldn't be transported in a car. (A note to people who feel this way: Unless you live on a farm, most of your food is indeed transported by vehicle, particularly if you're eating at a chain restaurant, when most of your food is already cooked then loaded into boxes and bags and vats and transported by vehicle. Eat up!)

But it's okay, assholes. If you don't want to eat what's at the potluck, you can follow a few friendly tips to help you survive. Number one: Hey, don't be an asshole at the party! Eat beforehand so you aren't hungry, and avoid making rude comments about your friends' dirty kitchen, fingernails, children, and so on.

Or you can do what one person interviewed by the Times does, and devise a system for yourself.

[Publicist Steve] Valentine constructed a food triangle hierarchy that he uses to assess which potluck foods he'll tackle. At the top are crudités and salads and other foods that are served as close to their original state as possible. Further down are simple recipe-based dishes: "I prefer it when hands haven't touched it that much, and I don't have to worry about the intellectual capability of the person making the dish." At the bottom are casseroles with strange, meat-like ingredients.

Poor Steve needs to spend his time only with smart people who eat bland food. Steve, you sound like a hoot at parties. I really dig hanging out with folks who are rating my intelligence in proportion to what dish I've brought on a given day to a given event. You seem like a swell guy who is on the whole really ignorant and hypersensitive. You know that spinach salad brought by Barbara in accounting? Well, she flunked World History in the 10th grade and it's entirely possible that spinach, in its raw "original state," may have been picked by an underpaid farm worker who took a crap in the field and didn't wash his hands before picking that exact leaf you're about to put in your mouth and all the leaves that got sent to California Pizza Kitchen where you enjoy eating frequently because it's nice and sanitary.Bottom line: Bacteria exists. We, as individuals, have very little control over the hygiene behind ANYTHING we eat, from the raw vegetable assortment Carol the receptionist picked up at Albertson's on her way over, to the homemade tamales made by Henry in Purchasing's Aunt based on a family recipe. Whether it's at a holiday party or a meal at our favorite restaurant, some element of risk always exists, and minimizing that risk for yourself is mostly a matter of common sense. If you have elaborate rules for yourself, you may indeed avoid spending the latter portion of the evening on the toilet reading endless entries in the Physician's Desk Reference, but more commonly you will run the risk of offending friends and family if your rules make you act like a douchebag. You also may risk missing out on taking part in the overall spirit of the holidays, and you may also miss out on the opportunity to try something new. But you're probably used to that...

To the rest of us: Use your common sense (raw fish, warm egg and mayo dishes are best avoided) and be a pleasant guest (don't sneer, elbow your fellow party-goers and whisper derisive remarks about a dish maker's hygiene). Stay home if you're feeling sick, and be cautious about mingling with another guest who is sick but didn't stay home.

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And don't get shitfaced and tell everyone to sit on your lap because you're Santa. But that's another story...

Photo of tomatoes on cutting board by Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer via LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr