Passover Preparations, and Good Housekeeping

There’s so much medical stuff I’d like to write on today. The thing is, it’s almost Passover. I’ve just got a few hours to finish readying our home for the holiday.

And so this will be the topic for today’s ML, on home-making:

Part of the Passover preparation is, in my mind, like spring cleaning: we scrub surfaces in the kitchen, pantry and elsewhere; we shake out all the rugs and vacuum or sweep extra carefully; we go through old foods and decide what’s worth keeping or should be discarded. We remove all bits of bread, and then set a minor flame (I use a match) to, symbolically and really, burn the last crumb.

I’m reminded of the spring of 1987, when I spent the second half of Passover in a small apartment in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I followed an endocrinologist in his rounds and learned about so-called tropical diseases: malaria, Chagas, amoeba and other parasites I hadn’t seen first-hand before. There was running water for only 4 hours early each day in the place where I stayed; I learned to gather, boil it and apply iodine to sterilize it before washing my few dishes. There I ate matzah I’d stashed in my suitcase. (Later on in my journey, its well-known constipating effects proved beneficial.)

The main public hospital in Cochabamba held patients in old-fashioned, long rectangular rooms with 15 or 20 beds along each side. Ventilation came by breezes through the open windows, and patients’ families were responsible for giving them food. Nurses – nuns, really – kept the place clean; they swept under each bed daily. No blankets or sheets touched the floor; it was immaculate.

I know there are people out there who think a sterile home breeds diseases – like asthma and peanut allergies and maybe even Hodgkin’s; the notion is that somehow it’s good to get our immune systems exposed at an early age to lots of bacteria and other organisms, so they won’t respond too vigorously to nature’s tiniest offerings. While there may be a germ of truth in some of these arguments (for the record, I don’t agree with most, and am fearful of the harmful bugs and parasites that can be lethal if ingested), I do think that for the most part, we could do a better job on the hygiene front.

At the AHCJ meeting I attended a session on food safety. There was a lot of discussion of how the FDA, USDA and other agencies are and aren’t tracing sources of contamination in the food supply, from large and small (excluded from some regulations) growers and manufacturers, and what to do about imported foods, which are screened now for radioactivity as well as for unwanted germs.

The way I see it is this: We’re responsible for our health to the extent that our behavior can reduce our risk of illness. Keeping a clean home, and washing food thoroughly, and cooking it carefully, are things we can do to reduce the odds of getting sick. Nothing’s full-proof, and I don’t mean to suggest that if someone develops hemolytic uremic syndrome from eating contaminated spinach or bad ground beef that it’s their fault.

But maybe we’ve become lazy as a culture, or just too rushed: we buy prepared food and pre-“washed” salad. We grow accustomed to the dust behind a bed-board or bookcase that’s hard to move; we don’t flip the couch cushions periodically and clean what’s under there, as perhaps our grandmothers would have, should they have been sufficiently fortunate to have upholstered furniture.

I admit that I’m very imperfect in all of this, that my home is far from absolutely clean, and that I sometimes eat salad in restaurants where I doubt it’s been quite so-well washed as I’d like or want to know. There is surely some dust on this laptop, and I fear now there may be a crumb of bread that’s escaped the feather’s final sweep.

But I’ll do my best, and sign off now, and enjoy the holiday with my family.

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