The holiday potluck may seem like an innocent, inexpensive way to throw a party, where friends and colleagues can share favorite recipes, savor an unusual dish or indulge a sweet tooth. But for some people, it's a minefield of food-poisoning bacteria waiting to wreak havoc. Los Angeles publicist Nilou Salimpour-Davidov sums up her feelings about potlucks this way: "I think they're good for one thing -- to minimize your calorie intake. They make me lose my appetite."
Instead of blithely helping themselves to mounds of casserole and slices of meatloaf, potluck haters head straight for the store-bought cookies, breads and beverages. They insist their aversion to homemade food isn't capricious. 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, they say. Even if the preparers seem clean enough, hardly anyone is as scrupulous as they should be in the kitchen, washing pots and utensils improperly and failing to keep foods at the right temperatures. And who knows what their rules are about tasting the dish while cooking?
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.
Dr. Roshan Reporter, a medical epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, acknowledges that potlucks can be risky. Although the department gets far fewer reports of food poisoning from potlucks than it does from restaurants, she says, those numbers ratchet up a bit around the holidays, when potlucks are in full swing.
And many illnesses may go unreported. People can be reluctant to squeal on a friend, family member or co-worker, usually putting the blame instead on something store-bought.
"Most of the time they don't want to get someone in trouble," she says.
The department will investigate potluck food poisoning incidents if they believe there's enough evidence to pin it on food (sometimes it's just a sick partygoer spreading germs). "If we had a whole group of people who were sick, we might do an outbreak investigation and look at the whole menu."
So, just what diseases can you get from tainted food? The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list the following as the top three most common types of food-borne illnesses:
It's found in raw poultry, and the contamination from this bacterial pathogen can come from eating undercooked chicken or other foods tainted with raw chicken juices (hence the need to thoroughly wash cutting boards and knives). It can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
This bacteria is commonly found in the intestinal tracts of animals and can also cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, but those with compromised immune systems may fare worse, even die. People most often get salmonella poisoning by eating food contaminated by animal feces; if meat isn't cooked to the proper temperature, the bacteria might not be killed off.
Cow-feces-contaminated food and water are commonly the culprits here; when humans come in contact with the bacteria, they can experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps and, in more severe cases, bleeding, kidney failure and temporary anemia.
But 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.
Salimpour-Davidov was reared by a pediatrician father whose frequent hand-washing habits drilled into her the notion that bacteria are just waiting for an opportunity to get you. "Ever since I was young, I remember him being adamant about refrigerating food and not letting it sit overnight," she says. That contributed to her loathing of potlucks.
Now she has a simple strategy: Eat beforehand, and be extremely selective at the party.
But she never cops an attitude. "There's always a way to be a nice guest at a party," she says, "especially around the holidays. You can always put a little something on your plate and nibble on things you find safe and healthy for you."
What is "safe," though, varies by potluck hater.
Rachel Duncan an L.A.-based project engineer for a construction company, is mostly OK about food that comes straight from the oven.
"I say to myself, 'Well, that killed the germs.' But those decorated cookies with junk on top -- someone has been putting that on there with their hands. It's been overly touched and that gives me the creeps."
Sometimes she'll give herself a pep talk, push through her fears and eat homemade fare anyway, especially if she thinks people might take offense if she doesn't. "It grosses me out, but I do it," she says. Otherwise, she tries sticking with things that are fairly low-risk. A bucket of cookies from Albertsons? Good. Homemade chocolate chip cookies? Bad.
Duncan recently drew the line at a company cookout. "I work on a job site with big trailers," she explains, "and we have field people and electricians and construction workers who use outhouses all day long. We had a barbecue and people are grilling burgers. Everyone's being funny about it, saying, 'Rachel, you don't think we wash our hands?' But I couldn't eat the burgers." Her co-workers, she says, weren't offended.
She doesn't even like to take food to the events, usually opting instead for paper goods, utensils and drinks. Although she's meticulous in her own kitchen, she still doesn't feel comfortable driving, say, cooked meat across town. "That grosses me out," she says. "That's what I tell people -- it's not you, it's me. It's not sanitary to bring food in the car -- and then you have to stop and get gas?"
L.A. publicist Steve Valentine gives potluck participants the once-over.
"If someone is well-groomed, I would definitely try their dish," he says. "It would lead me to think that they understood about cleanliness and had some knowledge and sophistication about preparing that dish and taking ownership of it. If someone came in with a dish and they were sloppy and their hair was a mess, I would not eat their food."
Edibles that come from homes with pets are OK, he says. Well, some pets. "Maybe not cats. I worry about the litter being in the house. I don't know how that all works."
Valentine constructed a food triangle hierarchy that he uses to assess which potluck foods he'll tackle. At the top are crudites 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.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, understands such squeamishness -- even if he doesn't share it. "People not using the right kind of personal hygiene, not adequately storing food at the right temperature -- at a potluck, that would be a concern," he says.