Wednesday, August 21, 1996
Don't-stuff rule infringes on tradition

The Cincinnati Enquirer

By my calendar, Thanksgiving is still 100 days away. Yet I'm already running around like a chicken with his head cut off over turkey day.

It's all because of the Agriculture Department's new don't-stuff rule.

This government edict threatens one of my great joys in life: loading up my plate on Thanksgiving with a fluffy mountain of my mom's delicious homemade turkey dressing.

Government turkey experts say if you want to play it safe, don't stuff the bird. Their research has found modern turkeys to be younger, leaner and juicier than ever.

The lean juice of youth makes turkeys cook quicker. So, the inside of the bird, where the stuffing turns into succulent dressing, at least when my mom makes it, is not reaching the desired, bacteria-killing temperature of 165 degrees.

The experts know that some of us, my mom included, are going to ignore the don't-stuff rule. So they have issued a warning that my taste buds tell me says:

Eating a big, steaming-hot helping of bread stuffing self-basted for hours in the oven by slow-cooking turkey drippings and seasoned with sage and slivers of onions could be hazardous to your health.

''There are risks to eating stuffed birds,'' says Bessie Berry, acting director of the federally funded meat and poultry hot line - ''Ten years of Toll-free Service at 1-800-535-4555'' - in Washington, D.C.

''If it's not fully cooked,'' she says, ''you could become ill. Your symptoms could be everything from a queasy stomach, vomiting and diarrhea to death.''

Death by dressing. What a way to go.

Bessie knows best

Bessie Berry talks about stuffing in a voice that sounds like Betty Crocker looks: soft, warm, kindly, all-knowing about cooking. When this woman talks food, you listen.

She mentions a 63-year-old Las Vegas woman who died after eating a salmonella-tainted batch of turkey and dressing last Thanksgiving.

This death was not part of an epidemic. Rodrigo Villar, a medical epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told me there are ''2 to 4 million cases of salmonella reported annually. They result in 1,000 to 2,000 deaths.''

The death in Las Vegas was the only one in the nation directly attributed to turkey and stuffing. ''And that's out of 58 million turkeys served last Thanksgiving and Christmas,'' he notes. ''So we are saying turkey is relatively safe. Just cook it properly.''

Apparently, we do in Cincinnati. Dr. Judy Daniels, the Cincinnati Health Department's medical director, is ''not aware of any case of food poisoning in the area in the past year due to eating turkey.''

That lets me rest a little easier.

Wish I could say the same for Bessie Berry.

She has taken some heat for issuing this warning. She's been charged with destroying an American tradition. Turkey and dressing go together like Thanksgiving and stuffing yourself.

Some callers to her hot line have likened what she's done to setting off a stink bomb under the Pilgrims' dinner table at Plymouth. They say she has defiled the memory of the first Thanksgiving.

She's done nothing of the kind. She's just trying to keep turkey-eaters and their traditions alive.

Bessie Berry does this because she is a Thanksgiving traditionalist at heart. She's the daughter of a turkey stuffer, and she'll do the same this Thanksgiving with her piece of poultry.

''The only way in my mind to get the true turkey dressing flavor,'' she declares, ''is to have the stuffing inside the bird.''

So, why issue the warning? Your mother stuffed turkeys. You've stuffed turkeys. You've lived to tell about it. And no one's gotten sick from it.

''Don't be so sure,'' she says in her best Betty Crocker voice. ''Some people probably did get sick. But we generally just said they ate too much. And they'd have to take it easy the next day.''

There she goes challenging another all-American tradition. This is the one where you call in sick on the Friday after Thanksgiving. That gives you a four-day weekend to stay home and eat leftover turkey . . . and dressing.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.