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Originally published January 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 9, 2008 at 4:22 AM

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Taste of the Town

Seeing red over undercooking trend

She introduced herself as a loyal reader: a well-traveled 73-year-old who has eaten her way around the world, knows her way around the kitchen...

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Food for Thought with Nancy Leson

Food For Thought airs every Wednesday on KPLU's Morning Edition at 5:35 and 7:35 a.m, and again on KPLU's Weekend Edition Saturday, at 8:35 a.m. Listen to "Having it your way," her latest commentary. Or subscribe to podcasts.

She introduced herself as a loyal reader: a well-traveled 73-year-old who has eaten her way around the world, knows her way around the kitchen and dines out often. And then the woman I'll call Mrs. Cook — bowing to her request for anonymity — let me know that she's been getting the raw deal, and she's had it.

"I'm sick and tired of waiters and waitresses asking how I want my food cooked!" she said. "There's only one way to cook it: 'Cooked!' "

I feel her pain. My husband prefers his steak medium, his pork chops and duck breast grilled till they lose their blush and his seafood seared beyond opaque. "Sorry, I'm from the Midwest," he'll say in apology when faced with the "how-to-cook-it" question.

Truth? He shouldn't have to apologize. Despite the fussy-foodie preference that these days leans toward the raw versus the cooked, and despite the preponderance of waiters quick with "suggestions" such as "Chef cooks his salmon rare at its center," you have every right to say, "Well, well, well. I beg to differ."

The Rare Food Movement has reached critical mass. And, if Mrs. Cook's righteous indignation is any indication, it's enough to make restaurantgoers scream, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Or, at the very least, contact their friendly restaurant columnist to share their stories. (Got one? I'd love to hear it.)

Recently, the missus ordered duck while she and her husband were dining out. She was appalled when the server asked, "How do you like your duck cooked — rare?" Well! "I've never eaten a 'rare' fowl, or heard of such a thing," she insists, so she gave her "usual cynical answer" — the one that embarrasses her husband every time. "I said I wanted my food 'cooked.' And out came a soft, red piece of duck, brown around the edges and red and soft in the center. Underneath it was half an acorn squash hard as a rock."

A week later, the couple dined at a swanky private club when, "What appeared on my plate? Two beautiful lamb chops, barely brown around the edges." The meat was so rare she couldn't cut it from the bone. "Rare is OK for beef, but not for lamb. [Rare] steak, we understand," said Mrs. C., before launching into an educated riff on ground beef and E. coli, a discussion about controlled seafood sourcing and handling, followed by a tale about the time her husband was asked, "How would you like your pork cooked?"

Aghast, she admits that she comes from a long line of trichinosis-fearing homemakers who wouldn't serve rare pork in a million years.

"Pork needs to be cooked. Lamb needs to be cooked. Duck needs to be cooked. Fish needs to be cooked. I don't think it's being cooked to the proper temperature. I see it as a public-health issue."

And then she threw in a kicker, asking, "Why are restaurateurs willing to risk making their guest ill by serving warm, undercooked foods?"

Why, indeed.

The easy answer is: Because they can.

The more complicated answer: Because when it comes to keeping customers satisfied, local chefs can't win for trying, which is why so many have chosen to leave the "degree of doneness" up to their guests.

"We give customers a choice," says the Steelhead Diner's owner/chef Kevin Davis. Having grown up in the South, he notes, "In my family, nobody ate undercooked anything. There was always the indelible mark of salmonella, food poisoning and food-borne illness." But as a chef who's seen a sea-change in dining habits over the years, he recognizes that "with the advent of haute cuisine, the introduction of Japanese cuisine, people began to accept the idea of undercooked food.

"In this day and age, if I were to sell a piece of salmon cooked more than medium-rare to a generation who grew up eating sushi, they'll say, 'You ruined my fish!' Someone older will look at the [rare-cooked] fish and say, 'This is raw! Send it back!' "

Today many of Davis' customers order their pork medium-rare. "There's no doubt in my mind that pork loin, in particular, tastes better with pink in it," he says. "Same thing with chicken, by the way. If you've ever had a chicken breast that's a touch pink near the wing, it's delicious." That said, he admits, by eating rare pork, rare-centered fish and pink-tinged chicken, he and his guests are taking a chance. "But," he said, "it's a relatively low chance, just like eggs over easy, something people eat every day."

In any case, restaurants are required to advise consumers about any health risks associated with eating raw or undercooked food. You've probably noticed the proliferation of warnings posted on menus, menu boards and table tents at eateries everywhere. These consumer advisories are there because the Washington State Department of Health wants you to know that, yes — your health may be at risk if you eat raw or undercooked food. And that goes for everything from the obvious (oysters on the half-shell or a rare hamburger) to foods you may not suspect harbor potential pathogens (say, tiramisu made with raw eggs or the unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices used in creating your "healthy" power-drink).

(Speaking of footnotes, here's one for you: These important advisories are described in excruciating, eye-crossing detail in Chapter 3.603.11 of the state Food Code, a daunting document whose concerns about eating raw and undercooked foods and their potential for food-borne illness are available for, um, public consumption at www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/sf/Pubs/FoodRule/chapter3.pdf.)

"Caesar Salad, $7.95" might be followed by the explainer "contains raw egg." And "Bacon Cheeseburger with Tillamook Cheddar, $10.50" might be listed with a note that says, "Our burgers are cooked to order." A disclosure could also be a footnote explaining that the item is served raw or undercooked, or that it may contain raw or undercooked ingredients.

For examples of the code upheld, I turned to my files and unearthed a summer menu from Ray's Boathouse. Score! Everything from Alaskan sea scallops to wild-caught salmon to grass-fed beef was denoted with an asterisk, associated with a footnote that read: "Consuming raw or undercooked seafood or meats may increase your risk of food borne illness. If this poses a health concern for you, please ask your server for further information."

"The Health Department wants us to let you know that sunny side up, over easy or soft poached eggs are, in the Authority's mind, undercooked eggs. You request it, we cook it!" reads a breakfast menu from Coastal Kitchen. And in a menu from the Japanese restaurant and sushi bar Shun, the verbiage, written as a footnote, lays it on the line: "Our menu contains fresh foods which can spoil easily (particularly in the summer). Eat as soon as possible to fully enjoy freshness and flavor."

Loosely translated: Buyer beware.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838

or nleson@seattletimes.com

More columns available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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