Ask The Salty Waitress: I'm Afraid My Neighbor's Cookout Food Could Make Me Sick

Dear Salty,I'm a germaphobe in general, and summer cookouts can make me nervous. Last year I went to my neighbors' Fourth Of July party and saw they'd already set out the burgers, hot dogs, salads, etc. who knows when, and left them in the sun. I stuck to potato chips and beer and didn't really eat much. I don't want to seem rude but I don't think I could eat potato salad that's been in the sun for hours. Am I overreacting? How can I avoid the suspicious salad but not offend people? Can I start bringing my own food? Thanks,No Potato Salad

Dear No Potato Salad,

How germaphobic are we talking? Are you a wash-your-hands-after-riding-the-subway person, or a carries-their-own-Lysol-spray-at-all-times person? If it's the latter, I doubt any of my advice is going to do much good. It's good to be smart about the food you eat, but if you feel like your phobia is making socializing difficult, then you might want to address it as a bigger issue.

Look, I'm no psychologist or health inspector, I'm just coming at this from the standpoint of common sense. Common sense says sure, you can bring some of your own food, but there are ways to do it that are more discreet and less awkward than others. You can bring a tray of food to share that you know was prepared properly, keep it in a cooler, and eat your portion soon after you show up. Don't bring a solo, pre-made hot dog for yourself. That's weird.

You could also avoid the food sitting out by asking your host in advance when they plan to start grilling, and then, fashionable lateness be damned, show up right on time. You'll be more likely to get food right as it comes off the grill.

As for how long food can sit out, you might be relieved to know the USDA says most food is fine at room temperature for two hours, one hour if it's above 90 degrees. So if you saw that food come off the grill or out of the cooler, you've generally got two hours before you need to start worrying. Craig Hedberg, who is a professor in the School Of Public Health at the University Of Minnesota and an expert on this kind of thing, told me the less contamination food starts with, the longer it can sit out before it bites you. So a lot of food safety actually begins with the food being prepared, not it sitting out. Hedberg says fresh fruits and vegetables and meat are the most likely to carry germs that could make you sick, while acidic foods made with vinegars or citrus juice fight bacteria off better. Sprouts are always kinda dicey—I skip those myself.

But please, resist the urge to go full inquisition-mode about how and when food was cooked. If you see someone slicing tomatoes on a cutting board that just had raw chicken on it, sure, step and help those dummies. But generally it's hard to ask too many questions about how something was cooked without coming off accusatory. If you're that worried about it, just skip the food that makes you squeamish and eat the stuff you brought.

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