What? Cat Hair in MY Kitchen?


It’s February, so I’ll disclose one of my January goals: Avoid ticking off Fern Hastings, Senior Environmental Health Specialist with Shasta County Department of Resource Management’s Environmental Health Division.

“Fern” is how she’s known in hushed tones to people in the food-service industry. They know she’s authorized to inspect all commercial kitchens. They know she has the power to shut down a greasy spoon the evidence is damning enough.  

She and I first spoke many years ago when I interviewed her for a story about using colorful foods to dye Easter eggs, ala Martha Stewart. Fern’s advice: Better safe than you-know-what. Skip the purple onions, beets and carrots. Stick with the store-bought products. Vintage Fern.

Since then, all my conversations with her have been via telephone, including last summer when I was told to call Fern to discuss my upcoming cooking demos at the Redding Farmers Market. I described my plan for strawberry-filled crepes from a simple batter made in a blender from a recipe I shared last spring with Edible Shasta-Butte.

Fern focused immediately upon the crepes. No way would she allow me to prepare the batter at home in my blender. I protested and reasoned that the crepe batter would be heated when I cooked the crepes. That would kill any germs, right?

That’s when she said something to the effect of, “I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but how do I know you don’t have cat hair and cat feces all over your kitchen counters? How do I know your kitchen isn’t filthy?”

I explained I didn’t even have pets, but I doubt Hastings heard because she forged ahead to describe in great detail a disgusting kitchen she once inspected that contained – yes – cat hair and cat feces.

That’s when I learned that with Fern, she may say no but she often offers options. 

1. I could prepare the batter in a blender at the Farmer’s Market, HOWEVER, since the recipe included potentially dangerous raw eggs, I’d need a hot-water hand-washing station on site. Oh, and by the way, I could only use Redding water, not my Igo well-water.

No. 2: Fern said I could prepare the batter at a commercial kitchen (one in good standing with health department inspections), and bring it to the market where I could pour it onto the griddle from a lidded pitcher rather than use a ladle to lift it from an open bowl.

I didn’t have access to a commercial kitchen (then). So I gave up, filled out Fern’s paperwork, took the path of least resistance and prepared something else that wouldn’t raise flags for Fern.

I did two summer cooking demonstrations. Everything went fine.

In some ways, it was a comfort to know that Fern required other cooks – professional chefs, even – to jump through the same hoops I had jumped. It was a consolation to know that Fern was an equal-opportunity stickler for details, and nobody-but-nobody got a free pass. Even if she liked you. Even during the holidays. Even for an 86-year-old World War II veteran with a home-based fruitcake operation that lasted more than a dozen years without raising anyone’s ire or eyebrows.

When Fern shut down his fruitcake-baking business in December, an angry public outcry arose in the older gentleman’s defense. 

I knew that particular fruitcake-baker, since I’d visited his kitchen a few times over the years for stories about him and his fruitcake recipe. 

I always wondered how he got away with it.

Apparently, December 2008 was the year he didn’t.  

The backlash against Fern was so stunning you’d have thought she’d murdered him. As an aside, some restaurants offered him their commercial kitchens, so he was still able to bake his fruitcakes – just not at home. Even so, some people demanded Fern’s resignation. Others sent hostile emails and left nasty phone messages.

One local newspaper editorial chided Fern for not allowing more “wiggle” room in her fruitcake findings. 

Personally, I’d rather eat in a restaurant inspected by someone who enforced health-and-safety codes by the letter of the law, not someone who looked the other way.

I wonder how the fruitcake-defenders would have reacted if someone they loved dropped dead after eating an e-coli-laced fruitcake. My guess was they’d have demanded Fern’s resignation for not shutting down the home-based fruitcake baker sooner.

People can be fickle that way sometimes.

That fruitcake uproar was in December, right in the middle of our plans for the Cascade Theatre’s first-ever Dinner and a Movie event where guest chefs and I would prepare food and serve samples on stage.

This time I knew better than to protest. I knew it was best to just do what Fern wanted and follow her rules. We dutifully went through the paces with Fern’s paperwork, questions and requirements.

But because I’d never actually seen Fern, I drove myself crazy as I cooked on the Cascade’s stage each week. I imagined Fern sitting in the dark with a clipboard where she scribbled furious notations in red ink: Doni Greenberg – Banned from all future food demos!!! 

With than in mind, in the same paranoid way that I pretend all story subjects secretly tape my interviews with them, (ah HAH – here’s what I REALLY said!“) to ensure I never misquote someone, I pretended Fern watched all four Cascade food demos. (I heard from a reliable source that Fern was in the audience for Babette’s Feast and my and Nancy Matthew’s chocolate demonstration.)

The pressure was intense. I was on my best food-safety behavior. The guest chefs and I prepared the samples inside commercial kitchens (thank you Faith Currie at Duzie’s Catering and Nancy Matthews at Chocolat de Nannette). 

As per Fern’s instructions, the cooked macaroni and cheese went into shallow baking pans and were rushed into the refrigerator. No stacked pans! And when the time came to bake and serve the macaroni and cheese, I followed Fern’s demands for internal temperatures of at least 165 degrees. Not a degree cooler!

I obeyed. I toed the line every week.

Yes, all the rules and guidelines and requirements were a total, royal pain in the neck.

But the hassle was worth it, even without the wiggle room, because the food we prepared and served to the public was as safe as humanly possible.

Nobody became sick. (Unless you ate too many meatballs, chocolate truffles, or too much pie or macaroni and cheese. But that’s not our fault.)

There’s talk that the Cascade might revisit its film/food festival again some time. If so, I have all kinds of ideas and plans (of course, if I’m invited).

And I already know my first request: A photo of Fern.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments