Monday, July 03, 2000

How clean is your kitchen?

"Reality" shows that put strangers together in unfamiliar quarters and tape their conflicts and camaraderie continue to be all the rage. We're invited to imagine what it would be like to be stranded on a desert island, or locked inside a strange house with cameras everywhere. How the participants cope with these new situations and new people, how they form friendships and rivalries, how they perform for the camera, how they react to eating rats, are all supposed to make for fascinating, glad-it's-not-me TV. But I've got a real "reality" concept guaranteed to send a shiver down viewers' spines: What if somebody planted a camera in your own comfortable house, recorded all the stupid, embarrassing, unhygienic things you do every day, and then had experts analyze them over the airwaves?

That's the high concept suggested by a recent study in which 100 Utah families had cameras placed in their kitchens so that researchers could observe all their food-handling mistakes. Like most of us, these were folks who would have said they do a fine job of keeping bacteria at bay. But once that candid camera was trained on them, the truth emerged: They were making mistakes with food that made eating live maggots look like a safer option than sitting down to dinner at their house.

Indeed, what desert-island indignity could compare with these horrors: People failing to use soap when washing their hands! Wiping up juice from raw meat with the same towel they use to dry their hands! Failing to wash the lettuce before making a salad! Tasting marinade after raw fish had been soaking in it! Not using soap to wash something that touched raw eggs! "Shocking!" said one expert. "People have no idea!" clucked another.

Well, of course, people probably do have an idea, but they also have a life, and that gets in the way. Researchers acknowledged that squalling kids, calling telemarketers, bawling babies, and all sorts of other true-life drama interfered with the cooks' attention to hygienic detail. And of course, if they had all washed their hands with soap, someone would have had to test the soap bar or bottle for germs, and whoo-ee, maybe they were better off with good strong hot water. I doubt that any of us would really want our cleanliness examined up close and personal. Personally, between the clutter creatures in my living room, the dust dinosaurs under my bed, and the mold monsters in my shower, my home's a horror movie waiting to happen. And talk about germ-filled kitchen rags? Mine is starting to talk back.

No, I can't say I feel any too superior to the mother in the study who fixed her baby's bottle with raw-chicken hands. Which doesn't mean I think she should be protected from public humiliation. The researchers kindly did not show the videotapes of the families' faux pas, hoping to save the already disgraced homemakers further embarrassment. But what fun is that? Surely NBC, a little light on the reality front just now, has a time-slot open? Call it "Kitchen Survivor," and whoever succumbs to food-poisoning last wins a million bucks and a truckload of Lysol products. If NBC passes, Fox is surely up for "World's Most Horrifying Kitchen Slip-Ups!"

Just as long as they don't try to film in my kitchen. I'd rather eat a rat.

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