This weekend we ate a super-crowded and well-regarded restaurant, the sort of place that sources all of its proteins locally and grows all of its own unique produce.
While I was admiring my amuse bouche, a bite of lightly poached halibut in olive oil, I noticed a slender, brownish-red tube against the white flesh. My immediate thought was this was a piece of the fish’s intestine and moved it off to the side, not thinking more about it. Until it moved.
It started stretching itself up through the oil, apparently trying to breathe. This is when I tried to get the waitress’ attention, and then failing that and in a panicked state, stood up, walked to the kitchen, and handed the dish to the chef.
I like bugs. I take the time to chase spiders around and set them free outside. I love, love crickets and katydids. I do not like worms, that is, nematodes. One surprised me inside a honeycrisp apple, and without pause, I threw the apple like a fastball out the window. A green one poked his head out of my farmer’s market kale, and I couldn’t walk back into the kitchen until after the salad was ready. Even so, I have been known after a heavy rain to spend way too much time using twigs like chopsticks and putting the ones that still have a chance (the still slightly pink, plump enough ones) back onto dig-able soil. (I guess contradictions are what make us human?)
Anyway, this was a nematode–a parasite that inhabits fish far more often than most of us are aware of. This is one of the reasons why eating raw and undercooked foods is risky. Anthony Bourdain warned never to order swordfish precisely for this reason in Kitchen Confidential. The thing about worms in your food is that it doesn’t correlate with “bad” food. In fact, a piece of fish that hasn’t been frozen is the kind that will have a live worm in it. I have seen worms writhing on styrofoam trays with the monkfish liver (ankimo) and salmon at Nijiya, my local Japanese market. I’ve seen them mostly dead in the whitefish (e.g., cod, flounder, halibut, haddock, sole) at Whole Foods. I’ve never found them in fresh fish I’ve caught, but that’s just luck.
The good news is that eating a live parasitic, fish-dwelling nematode is only very rarely going to cause problems. Most of them can only live a week or so in our digestive tracts. Swallowing a live tapeworm is a bigger deal, because they can live inside humans for years, but tapeworms are common in lamb, beef, and pork–not fish. Also good news, perhaps, is that even if you have a tapeworm currently inside you, until it reaches epic proportions (they can grow to a length of 50 feet), you probably won’t notice any symptoms.
If this freaks you out, as the CDC recommends, either eat only proteins that have been cooked at 140 degrees F, or eat them raw only if they have been previously frozen to -4 degrees F for at least a week, or all the way down to -35 degrees F for at least 15 hours. (Almost every sushi restaurant freezes their fish, even when they say they haven’t.)
As for my surprising discovery at the fancy restaurant, the management apologized profusely and more than made up for the gaffe. I appreciated that a lot, and the rest of the meal was great. But it reminded me that in the end, I like my own cooking best. I like knowing what I’m dealing with and making the time to carefully clean and pick through my ingredients. I can decide whether I want to risk eating something raw or not. And I can scream when I want to.