The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Kitchen Safety

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of big, hectic-but-happy gatherings. Of course, as “Black Friday” morphs into “Gray Thursday,” the merchandising and advertising people are trying their best to have families enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at the mall food court while they do their shopping for the upcoming “Main Event.” But, until that happens, Thanksgiving is still about family, friends, and food. And when there's a lot of cooking going on, there's an increased danger of disaster. And I don't just mean a dry turkey.

Statistically, Thanksgiving Day provides as much employment for firefighters as the following day does for retail clerks. To pick a city at random, Birmingham, Alabama averages thirty-eight cooking fires over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend every year.

So the national fire safety folks have once again issued their annual reminder. It begins, “For cooking that the involves roasting, baking, simmering or boiling of food, someone should always be home. Don’t leave your home while food is cooking.”

You know, I'm one of those paranoid idiots who won't leave the house while the washer or dryer are running. I unplug my toaster when I'm not using it and I'm even a little itchy about crock pots. If I thought it were practical, I would probably just throw the main breaker when I walk out the door. I can't imagine anybody actually leaving the house while the stove is on. But it happens.

The next tip says, “Whenever you are broiling, grilling or frying food, someone should stay in the kitchen. Turn the stove off if you have to leave this type of cooking unattended.”

See my comment in the previous paragraph. An unattended broiler, grill, or fryer can go from incinerating your food to incinerating your house in about two seconds flat. And yet I've read horror stories about people wandering off and taking a nap only to wake to the sounds of fire engines. Or to not wake at all. Back in Birmingham, statistics there show that ovens and fryers account for twenty percent of cooking fires and that eighty-three percent of frying fires begin within the first fifteen minutes of cooking.

Tip number three advises, “If a pot on the stove catches on fire, put a lid on it and turn the burner off, this should smother the fire. Leave the pan covered until it cools off.”

Salt, baking soda, or a good old Type ABC fire extinguisher like the one that sits one foot to the left of my stove are also good for small cooking fires, but the lid method is the quickest way to deprive a fire of the oxygen it needs. And don't try to peek under the lid two seconds after you put it on. You would be astonished by how quickly a fire can flare back up, costing you at least your eyebrows, if not your whole kitchen. Stoves and ranges get credit for sixty-seven percent of Birmingham's cooking fires.

The list continues, “If food in the oven or microwave catches on fire, keep the door closed and turn the appliance off if it is safe to do so. If you choose to fight the fire, make sure that others are evacuating and calling 9-1-1 for assistance.”

This one is probably an abundance of caution, at least as far as evacuating and calling for help goes. Most ovens and microwaves will contain a fire that starts within. That whole lack of oxygen thing again. This presupposes, of course, that you're not stupid enough to open the door and let the fire out into the nice, oxygen-filled kitchen. That's when you need to evacuate and call 9-1-1. A little grease fire you can usually knock down yourself. When it's burning the curtains and climbing the walls, you need help.

Next tip, “Keep electrical cords for small appliances such as coffee makers, mixers, hot plates and electric knives from dangling off of the counter so they do not get pulled or tripped over, knocking the appliance to the floor.”

Okay. Your mixer, your coffee maker, and your electric knife are not going to set the house on fire if you knock them on the floor. The hot plate is iffy. A deep-fryer might, which is why mine has a magnetic breakaway cord that will detach from the body of the unit when subjected to the least little bit of pressure. Still, this one is more of a general safety tip than a fire prevention issue.

We are cautioned, “Keep pot handles turned inward to avoid hitting them and knocking the pot to the floor.”

Again, a fairly low fire risk, but a pretty decent burn risk. Did I ever tell you about the time Aunt Rose violated this tip? When we were five or six years old, my cousin was about an inch taller than me. That inch made a big difference as we tore full-speed through the kitchen one day. The top of my head cleared the pot handle sticking out; his didn't. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. Nobody got supper, either. It was an awful mess. And even though the cast-iron handle made a small impression on my cousin's head, the incident made a big impression on me. In the half-century plus that has elapsed, I have never left a pot handle sticking out.

The list goes on to say, “Keep items that can burn such as towels, pot holders and wooden utensils away from the stovetop.”

Other than grease fires, this is the biggest cause of most kitchen conflagrations. It's so easy to carelessly toss a dish towel just a l-e-e-e-tle to close the stovetop and walk away to do something else. When you turn back around, your kitchen's on fire.

It is further suggested, “To avoid having your clothes catch on fire, don’t wear loose or flowing clothing if you’ll be cooking. Remember if your clothes do catch on fire you should stop, drop and roll, as this will smother the fire.”

Nothing brightens the holidays like rolling on the floor in flames and then being transported to the hospital with second and third-degree burns. But, gee, that new blouse with the big, puffy long sleeves is just so festive and pretty! In Birmingham, one out of every five fires resulting from clothing igniting results in death. There's a reason cooks dress like they do. Part of the reason is we really hate catching on fire. Oh, losing some arm hair now and then is one thing, but going up like a Roman candle is something else entirely. When it comes to such matters, function beats fashion every time. Now, I'm not suggesting you cook your Stovetop Stuffing geared up in a close-fitting fireproof suit, but it might be a good idea to wear something practical to cook the meal and then change into something festive and pretty to serve and enjoy it.

A few other safety tips to consider: Clean food and grease off cooktops and out of ovens before you get started. No sense in adding an additional source of fuel in case of an accident.

Use a timer – a good, LOUD one – to remind you that things are cooking and when they should be attended to.

Establish a three-foot “kid-free zone” around your stove. Ask Aunt Rose about that one. Kids helping in the kitchen is one thing; kids playing in the kitchen is something else entirely. Same thing applies to pets. They really shouldn't be in the kitchen to begin with, but especially not when you're bustling around with hot pots and pans and full dishes and platters. Tripping over the dog while transporting the turkey to the table ruins Thanksgiving for everybody – except, perhaps, for the dog. And the cat would likely object strenuously to being doused in hot gravy.

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned fire extinguisher, have working smoke detectors throughout your house. And don't yank the batteries when the alarm goes off as you're in the middle of preparing something. The detector is only doing its job. Turn on a fan or move the unit farther from the preparation area. Don't disable it. You might not live to regret it.

Best wishes for a happy – and safe – Thanksgiving holiday.

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