Food Poisoning: Once Bitten, Twice Hungry?

Contributor
Would you return to the scene of the crime if your favorite restaurant gave you food poisoning?
Food Poisoning: Once Bitten, Twice Hungry?
Composite image by Arthur Bovino with photo courtesy Flickr/alandacleaver_2000

Once bitten, twice hungry?

There's a local burger joint you love and adore. You tell your friends about it. Rank it among the best in the city. You get upset when it ends up on the Lonely Planet tourist trail — so packed it's almost too hard to get in. But you keep going, cause, man, do they make a good burger. It's juicy and dripping, on a bun that's moist, with give, but just slightly toasted. Fresh toppings and condiments. And it's served with crispy fries and terrific beers. This burger is good like it's nobody's business. But one fateful night, after eating a burger at this, one of your favorite restaurants ever, it happens: you spend a long night writhing in pain from food poisoning.

You're alternatively stricken with chills and fever. You sweat through clothes and sheets. You're nauseous and can't find a position that makes the pain in your stomach stop. Agony, longed for reprieve, mortality, you deal with it all, morbid thoughts only broken up by the rolling waves and lightning strikes of jagged-knife pain slashing into your stomach. And when all is said and done, when all the other unmentionable symptoms of food poisoning have come and gone, you're left with a quandary.

Do you ever go back to the restaurant?

There are a few ways this is likely to play out. One, your once-favorite restaurant earns your eternal scorn. You tell everyone it made you deathly ill. You kill it on message boards. You Tweet, Yelp, write blogposts and negative reviews on every food site you can find. You call the restaurant and chew them out. You threaten to sue.

Maybe you don't immediately turn on the place. After all, this is one of your favorite places, right? Can't this happen to the best of them? Chef Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred Fat Duck famously made more than 500 diners ill during Norovirus outbreaks in January and February of 2009 (an incident that did lead to a lawsuit by sports presenter Jim Rosenthal). You start rationalizing. After all, are you certain it was the burger that made you sick? Maybe you had something earlier for lunch that was the culprit? You don't want to say things about the place that aren't true. Maybe you just never go back?

Regardless of how you decide to talk about it with friends, and how you plan to view the place, the CDC makes it clear that you have some civic responsibilities. You should report any suspected foodborne illness to your local health department: "Often calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as to ill people. Your cooperation may be needed even if you are not ill."

And you should probably call the restaurant and let them know you were really sick and that they might want to look at x, y, or z. Even if you're not looking out for anyone else, if you're ever planning to go back, you're probably going to want them to have everything straight. But so here's the thing: do you ever go back?

This happened to me at my favorite burger joint in Brooklyn a few years ago. I won't say where it was, but suffice it to say, it was one of the hottest places going. It's still hot. I used to go there all the time. Then one day, I went and had the burger. Loved it. An hour later I was ruined. Did I have anything else that day that could have made me sick? I don't remember. Maybe I ate from a street vendor. Who knows? It was years ago. But one, I have a cast-iron stomach, and two, as many other people who eat for a living will tell you, it's often not guys selling food on the street who get you sick.

Without going into horrid details, I'll tell you I was horribly ill. I was convinced it was the restaurant, and I was devastated that my favorite burger did this to me. I never returned. The burger was dead to me.

Flash forward three years. A relatively new Mexican place had opened, and I fell in love. It was closest to replicating the best West Coast tacos and burritos I'd ever had. I'd eat there a few nights a week on the way home and be in bliss. One night, the same thing happened. Chills, fever, deathly nausea, and cramps — so bad I was up all night cursing the place, wishing unspeakable things on the owners and cooks. It was so bad I didn't make it to work the next day.

But a few months later I'd forgotten all about it. Forgotten! I don't know how, but it did, completely. And it wasn't until I mentioned the idea of going there for dinner one night that it was brought to my attention that I'd said I'd never go back. So I didn't. But I flirted with the idea — I looked at it with equal longing and suspicion from across the street. Then weeks later I crossed the street and walked right by it, looking in with hope and desire. Battling with myself, shoving back that urge to go. "The pain! Remember the pain! Don't do it."

This continued for months, until finally, last night, I did it. I went. I made my favorite order. I opened up the foil and unabashedly devoured the burrito. The beans, the meat, the spice, the guac, the crema, the ratio of meat to bean to sauce and condiment, it was all still there just as I remembered, sweet deliciousness. And then I waited — waited for repercussions, waited for pain. And it didn't come — not at all.

Now, how about grabbing that burger?

Ever been devastated by food poisoning at your favorite restaurant? Comment below. Follow Arthur on Twitter at @Arthur_Bovino.