Last week, I bought one bad clam, along with approximately a hundred of its siblings, from a perfectly respectable (and totally blameless) fish monger. The clam sojourned briefly in my refrigerator and then spent an hour or so atop my stove, in the company of tomatoes, coconut milk, chiles, and cilantro. The clam and its siblings were then laid across a bed of thin rice noodles and gobbled up by me, my partner, and two dinner guests.
I'd never cooked clams before, and hadn't intended to. Last Saturday, one of my dinner guests said he and his partner rather liked seafood, and I set about planning a dinner of maki rolls and unagi-don. Then, on Monday, the day before our date, this guest mentioned: "Oh, by the way -- we love seafood, but not sushi."
So much for maki. As we ate our clams Tuesday evening, I asked my guest why he and his partner didn't like sushi, and his response struck me as incredibly retrograde. "Well, it's raw," he said, giving me a look that suggested the wrongness of rawness ought to be self-evident.
"And?" I inquired, around a mouthful of poison.
"That's just not safe!" he said. I didn't argue with him then. But now, as I venture gingerly
out of the bed and sit here in my bathrobe, typing slowly, thinking
groggily, and feeling generally like a rotted husk of myself, I feel the
disagreement's worth reviving.
This is not my first experience
with food poisoning. I am so afflicted every few years, and the culprit
is almost always seafood. Twice it was lobster; on three occasions it
was clams. Once I was brought low by a scallop. Each time, the tainted
dish has been thoroughly cooked.
In fact, it's difficult to be
poisoned by raw seafood. It is inevitably handled with far more care
than cooked seafood. Consider bivalves -- clams, oysters, etc. If you
eat them at a restaurant, they have been handled individually by
professionals with considerable bivalvic experience, who are likely to
notice the telltale signs of corruption and rot. The shell opens too
easily, or else emits the smell of low tide.
professionals at a raw bar fail to note the taint -- which they've never
done in my restaurant-going experience, but let's say it happens --
then a half-observant eater surely will. There's the dead animal,
sitting upon your plate, raw and unadorned. if it looks or smells ugly,
you won't want to eat it.
These observations are almost
impossible to make when your bivalves are cooked and sitting at the
bottom of a stew. My worst-ever bout of food poisoning hit me in Watch
Hill, Rhode Island, after a tasty but ridiculously overpriced meal at
what was allegedly that little town's best restaurant. The dish was
Maine lobster with crab stuffing and clams, all of which came served,
steaming hot, in a shallow pool of butter and garlic. Despite their many
virtues, butter and garlic make an excellent camouflage for rot. I sang
the praises of my evil dinner for three hours, right up until the
moment my digestive tract seemed to split in two, and attempted to
escape from my poor, doomed body through any available exit. (My $50
entree made me sick for a week. At the time, I was in Rhode Island to
celebrate my father's impending wedding, and when I ate my poisoned
dinner, I'd just been fitted for a tux. By wedding day, I'd shed ten
pounds on account of that dread lobster, and in my tux I looked like a
flagpole on a windless day.)
It's even harder to poison
somebody with raw fish than with raw shellfish. Shellfish is, in some
sense, an acquired taste. Put a fresh-shucked oyster in front of the
average three-year-old, and the three-year-old will not immediately
realize that she has been offered food. That's not the case with tuna,
salmon, or mackerel. Natural selection has equipped our species with
brains that readily interpret the qualities of fresh fish as signs of
edibleness. Its texture, flavor, and scent all scream of deliciousness.
If one of these qualities should go missing, even unsophisticated eaters
can tell. The dish is returned, the fillet is tossed.
haunted by the thought that I might have inadvertently poisoned my
dinner guests. I didn't, but I could have. I thought I'd
inspected my clams thoroughly before tossing them in the pot. But if I
hadn't tossed them in the pot at all, I would have noticed the tainted
clam's limp shell or odd smell as I pried it open. Failing that, I would
have caught its malignant whiff as I hoisted it to my mouth, or tasted
its tidal wretchedness on the tip of my tongue and spat it out.
Hopefully, my dinner guests would have done the same. As it happened,
with the poison camo'd beneath the many flavors of my (thoroughly
delicious) stew, none of us stood a chance. If the befouled clam had
wound up in their dish rather than mine, they would have spent the week
in bed, more afraid of seafood than ever.