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Room-temp temptation

Leaving food out can be risky, but some people have been doing it long before refrigeration

POSTED: April 6, 2011 1:30 a.m.
MICHELLE BOAEN JAMESON/The Times

Some people believe leaving certain foods out to be harmless, but is it really harmless or just a gamble with food poisoning?

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On a hot, summer day in the South, if you offer your friend a lukewarm glass of sweet tea, you may not be able to count them as a friend much longer.

And if you happen to mention to a neighbor that you leave your eggs on the counter instead of storing them in the refrigerator, well you probably shouldn’t be too surprised if they turn down your 3-egg, omelette brunch invitation.

These days, just about everything goes into the refrigerator, but that wasn’t always the case.

"I grew up in the country. We had an icebox, but we didn’t put a lot of stuff in it," said Mae Brown, a 69-year-old Jefferson County native who is visiting relatives in Hall County.

"All of the meat was kept in the smokehouse and we kept stuff like eggs out. My grandmama churned the butter and it just stayed in the (ceramic) churn. It didn’t go in the icebox, but it didn’t melt."

Just as meals were planned carefully so that there wouldn’t be any extras that required storage, drinks were made just as meticulously, Brown says.

"Sometimes my mama would make lemonade or sweet tea to go with a meal, but it wasn’t just pitchers of it sitting around for us to drink on all day," Brown said.

"If we got thirsty, we could get a drink of water from the well."

Ned Hardy, a Gainesville resident, also had a rural upbringing without an electric refrigerator.

"We’d always had electricity back home in Alabama, but we only had an icebox," said 74-year-old Hardy.

"We ate more fresh food, there wasn’t no going to the store to stock up and putting it away in the refrigerator. If we wanted chicken for dinner, we killed it fresh that morning. If we wanted milk, we got it from the cow."

When his family moved to Harlem in the late 1950s, they got their first refrigerator and came to rely more on store-bought goods.

"There wasn’t space for a garden or keeping (livestock), so we had to buy all of that stuff from the store," Hardy said.

"We used to keep the butter and eggs on the counter in Alabama, but that changed when we moved to Harlem. Mama insisted that everything had to go in the refrigerator then."

Electric refrigeration methods made it possible for farmers and ranchers to get their products to a larger market of people, outside of their immediate community. It also opened the door for the manufacturing of more food products. Although the invention made life more convenient, it also changed the way people were able to store their food.

For instance, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, during the laying of eggs, hens produce a protective coating for their eggs. The natural coating gets removed during required washings at processing plants. The lost coat gets replaced by an artificial one when the eggs get sprayed with a sanitizing detergent before being refrigerated and shipped to consumers.

This process helps protect buyers from bacteria like salmonella, but once an egg has been refrigerated, the USDA reports that they should stay that way. Fluctuating temperatures can make the eggs harmful for consumption.

Whether it was in the form of an icebox or electric refrigerator, cooler temperatures help slow down bacteria growth, the USDA says.

According to the department’s food safety and inspection service division, bacteria growth is the quickest between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The organization calls those temperatures the "danger zone."

Pathogenic bacteria, the kind that cause foodborne illnesses, grow very rapidly in this zone. If food is held at a temperature higher than 40 degrees for longer than 2 hours, the USDA recommends that it not be consumed.

Whether the food is leftovers, or eggs and butter that need to be brought up to room temperature for a recipe, it shouldn’t be left out for more than a couple of hours, the organization warns.

"I think folks have gotten carried away. I grew up eating food that didn’t have a lick of refrigeration," said 70-year-old Pearl Dempsey, a Gainesville resident.

"My daughter has a fit if I leave anything out on the counter. She even puts her syrup in the refrigerator. That’s just crazy.

"I say if you leave something out and it looks funny or smells bad, then throw it away. But if not, eat it."

Even if food is stored in the refrigerator or freezer, its not exempt from looking or smelling "funny."

Bacteria can still grow in cooler temperatures if they are stored for an extended period. These spoilage bacteria can make items develop foul odors, tastes and unusual textures.

Even though we have the modern convenience of refrigeration, some shoppers still choose to live by traditional dictates.

"Buy what you need, when you need it," said 48-year-old Avery Johns.

"I don’t believe in buying in bulk. I usually buy enough groceries to last my family for a week, maybe two, but that’s it.

"Even though I have a deep freezer and refrigerator, I don’t like storing stuff in there for long. If you don’t stock pile food, then you’re able to get the freshest stuff available."



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