When I invite a first-timer on a restaurant review, it usually takes only a few e-mailed sentences to explain the drill: A critic's companion must order copiously, share willingly and strive mightily to remember the correct fake name if forced to deal with a hostess. What I usually fail to mention is there's a good chance my friend will go home with a bellyache.
After dinner at Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen, the subject of this week's review, our clubs editor Erin Thompson felt awful. (I'll spare you the details she messaged me.) That's not the fault of Kickin' Boot: It's a natural reaction to supping on fried shrimp, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, jalapeno sausages, collard greens, coleslaw, French fries, cornbread, sweet potato pie with whipped cream and a few liquor drinks. The human body isn't built for restaurant criticism.
Restaurant critics almost never write about getting sick, because it's impossible to conclusively identify a culprit. I'm confident that Erin's stomach troubles resulted from eating so much oil, butter and spice (especially since everyone else at the table fared just fine), but when I'm doubled over at my desk, I have no way of knowing whether I'm reacting to the oyster stew I had for lunch or the eggs I had for breakfast. Since accusing a restaurant of poisoning its customers is among the most damaging charges a critic can, um, hurl, we're accustomed to keeping quiet about our bouts.
But that doesn't mean those bouts are infrequent. As the Weekly's former critic, Jason Sheehan, recently wrote for CNN, "Want to know how I stayed (relatively) thin while still often eating 10 meals out a week? Food poisoning. Certainly wasn't my dedicated exercise regimen."
Whether or not they're getting paid for it, diners who roam widely often become inured to the inevitable results of eating everything. "I was hungry and on Valley Road," a Canadian contributor to Trip Advisor wrote. "I went in to find one table of young Asians puking...Pretty expensive by Valley Blvd standards." My guess is less experienced eaters probably wouldn't have stuck around to pay too much for lamb chops.
Critics, though, have little choice. Obviously, there are jobs which exact far more serious physical tolls: A few days ago, a worker was cooked to death at a Bumble Bee plant. So I don't want to whine too loudly about the difficulties associated with eating the wrong cassoulet. But I think it's interesting that restaurant reviewers, alone among cultural critics, risk physical suffering when they assess incompetent work (I suppose an architecture critic could fall through an unsupported floor, but I'd wager that's not a weekly occurrence.)
Although I don't have the scientific data to prove it, my strong suspicion is I've had worse luck with the meals that most Americans would consider "normal." Food critics are apt to eat monkey brains and duck feet, but getting sick doesn't require deviating from the standard U.S. diet. Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler has been closely following the recent salmonella outbreak at an On The Border in Vancouver, which has been linked to 23 confirmed and 65 probable cases of Salmonella Virchow. (His form yesterday filed suits on behalf of 10 sickened customers.)
Other salmonella outbreaks over the past few weeks have involved smoked salmon, peanut butter, cantaloupes, mangoes and organic ground ginger. According to a new Bloomberg report, 3,000 Americans annually die from eating food. Not eating live roaches, as the poor guy who passed away in south Florida did last week. Eating regular food, such as fruits, vegetables and cheese. And the rate of infections linked to salmonella is up an astounding 10 percent since 2006.
While better reporting could conceivably account for a fraction of that increase, there aren't any signs that food is becoming safer. With the nation's food system desperately in need of reform, it might behoove us all to talk more openly about foodborne illnesses - critics included.
Hungry yet? Kickin' Boot - which received a satisfactory rating on its health department inspection last month - is a good choice for a steak and a glass of whiskey. But if you want steak and sausages and brisket and fried chicken, you might want to make multiple visits. (Erin's feeling much better, thanks. Not sure if I'll be able to coax her back out on the reviewing circuit though.)
You'll find the full review of Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen here. As my mother would say, enjoy them in good health.