What? No toothpicks in meat anymore?

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Column: Dave Churchill, Guest Column

Because the family was out of town, I have been cooking whatever I want for supper this week. What I wanted one night, it turned out, was one or those little bacon-wrapped steaks, grilled, rare.

As the butcher wrapped one up for me, he said, “You’ll want to use some toothpicks.” I’m sure I looked puzzled, because he said, “You’ll want to keep that bacon on there while the meat cooks. We can’t put toothpicks in them anymore. New law. So you’ll want to put some in.”

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While the inconvenience was mild — securing bacon to a steak is a cooking challenge that even I can handle — the absurdity of the situation is immense. Pretty much forever butcher shops have been securing bacon to steaks with toothpicks. Now they can’t.

It’s not hard to imagine what led to the new anti-toothpick regulation: Somewhere, one time, some idiot did not realize that bacon does not magically self-adhere to other meat, and bit into a toothpick. Or, worse, this person swallowed a giant, unchewed bite without noticing the toothpick at all — until too late.

Like so many laws and regulations designed to protect us from ourselves, this one probably seemed rather wise to whatever legislator or bureaucrat put it into place. It was, no doubt, a chance to do something that was unarguably in the interests of public safety.

After all, do we want our fellow Americans poking themselves in the mouth with toothpicks? Of course not. It’s best that everyone be happy and what is more, know that they need never engage their brains while chewing.

The fact that almost nobody ever actually is hurt by toothpicks in meat, because almost everybody can figure out not to bite into them, means nothing compared to the fact that somebody once made that mistake — and might again.

So now we have another law that will protect a certain type of fool, but merely annoy the vast majority of us.

One reason that we have so many of these rules — the government is always announcing its plans for helping us eat right, sleep safely and the like — is that taken individually they are utterly benign. And they are certainly easier to create than meaningful policy.

Neither state nor federal leaders and regulators are able to develop and implement many things that really matter. They cannot create a lasting budget, they can not truly fix the national debt problem, they can not formulate a national energy policy. But when it comes to making you safe by creating tiny little rules, elected and appointed officials alike excel.

Unfortunately, a million little safety rules have gradually made us expect that nothing bad will happen, even if we bumble through life without ever engaging our God-given brains. We’ve become so complacent that some of us, apparently, cannot purchase, cook and eat a small, bacon-wrapped steak being protected from toothpicks.

What actually bothers me most about the Toothpick Incident is that it bothers me at all, that I’ve spent any time fretting about the matter and what it implies for the future of America.

What I’m afraid it implies for me is that I am becoming one of those old guys who goes around boring everyone about some off-beat subject — the threat of communism, death rays from space and the like.

Yet I can’t shake this notion that we are someday going to regret allowing our government to tie us into knots in the name of safety, and because it’s easier than doing anything productive.

Fortunately, one of the advantages of turning into a crazy old guy is that I may not be around long enough to see the consequences.

Dave Churchill is the publisher of the Austin Daily Herald.