Iwashed my raw turkey. I was wrong.
I could have rinsed. But soaping up was a bad idea. A turkey expert from the United States government told me so.
In my defense, I should point out that it is not like me to soap up my supper. However, the other day I got carried away with the current concern for cleanliness that seems to be sweeping through America's kitchens.
I wanted to do my part to stamp out salmonella, the bacteria sometimes found in raw poultry and eggs, that can cause food poisoning.
I remembered that folks on the front lines of the battle against the disease had recommended washing the cutting board and any utensils that came in contact with raw poultry.
So I decided to take the process a step further. Why not give the bird a bath?
A few weeks ago as I was practicing for my annual attempts to cook the Thanksgiving and Christmas birds on the barbecue, I gave the raw bird the treatment.
I put a dab of dish-washing soap on the skin, put the carcass under the hot water faucet, and gave the bird a quick once over. I rinsed well. And patted the bird dry with paper towels. I stayed away from the dark inner cavity. Giblets and liver dwell there. And once I had pulled them out, I didn't want to put my hand back in there.
As I worked, I envisioned thousands of screaming bacteria yelling "Run for it! It's soap and water!"
I felt proud.
Then, a few days later, I called Susan Conley, a home economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hot Line ( 535-4555), and I felt stupid.
Conley told me that if I wanted to fight bad bacteria, I could wash my cutting board and my utensils in warm soapy water. But not my bird.
There are several problems with soaping a turkey, she said. First, there is the rather obvious point that soap is not food. And if any soap lingered on the bird, the residue could taste bad and do unpleasant things to my stomach.
Secondly, soap and water don't kill the salmonella bacteria. What kills the bacteria is cooking the bird thoroughly. To be safe, the meat thermometer stuck in the cooked bird should read 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and when stuck in the stuffing, 165 degrees.
In the absence of a working thermometer, other signs that the bird is done are when its juices are clear, its meat is not red, and its legs move freely in their sockets.
Moreover I learned that, by washing the raw bird with hot water, I actually gave the bacteria a better chance to grow.
Hearing that, I figured out that instead of screaming with fright at the onslaught of soap and water, any bacteria on the bird's skin were jumping for joy because their chance to live and prosper had markedly improved.
Conley also said it was a matter of debate whether a raw turkey needed to be rinsed before cooking.
Callers to the hot line are told that rinsing is done primarily for ascetic reasons, she said, to make the bird look "right" to the cook.
But any rinsing should be done with cold water, not hot, she said.
In other words, I asked, should I forget all that stuff my mother told me as a kid about the salvific effects of washing my hands in hot, soapy water?
Conley did not go that far. While not taking a stance on whether hot soapy water has a beneficial effect on small boys, she simply said it was bad for raw birds.
By the way, I cooked the bathed bird on the grill.
It was OK.
The meat was a little dry.
But the skin was so clean that when I held the bird up to my face, I could see my reflection.