Illustration by Kelsey Dake
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

The situation is serious, deadly serious. At the same time, it is also clear: As with all national disasters, the performance of officials amid Germany’s vegetable-borne E. coli outbreak belongs to the theater of the absurd. We are experiencing a constant parade of incompetence, which is presented in a completely earnest fashion. And the news media are trying above all to make their marks.

The experts are hitting us round the clock; we’re willing to believe everything they say. We are amateurs and continue with our chatter: What used to be an exchange of words about the weather has now turned into a highly involved discussion about alternating bowel movements -- even in random encounters.

It’s not uninteresting to hear what our fellow man is experiencing these days. Had I not expected to be infected by the panic fanned by the news media? I live in Hamburg, the center of the whole mess. Whether cucumbers, tomatoes or bean sprouts, the primary suspects are among us -- certainly at our weekly farmer’s market, where my wife buys so much. Are we now to eat only tomatoes from New Zealand, or biscuits with dried fruit?

Then, there I am at noon at my local Turkish place ordering a kebab, and the waiter asks me: “With everything?”

I nod without thinking; I see him lost in thought as he puts the cucumber and tomatoes in my kebab pocket along with the meat and onions, and someone is standing next to me saying: “Whoa! Are you trying to poison us?”

The questioner is huge, half-naked and tattooed; fortunately, he meant the Turk behind the counter, who knew immediately what the guy meant.

It’s My Kebab

Before I can say something -- after all, it’s my kebab -- the big guy issues instructions to take every bit of cucumber and tomato out of my kebab. I smile at him with gratitude. He pays no attention to me, praises the sandwich maker, then orders a kebab for himself with everything, “including tomatoes and cucumbers -- whadd’ya think of that?”

Next time I’ll go to a currywurst stand -- a vegetable-free zone. Half a chicken, meatballs, schnitzel burger -- meat has become my substitute for vegetables -- at least until the coast is clear. My running buddy, a vegetarian, is on a long abstinence; He switched to frozen foods, just to be safe.

At McDonald’s, almost everyone orders burgers without veggies. I am trying to understand. Every day the news comes out, is withdrawn, then comes out again, stirring up new hysteria.

Uncertainty at Lunch

I confess to my buddy that I’m not sure anymore whether I can eat at the local Thai place for lunch, because they use lots of sprouts in every dish.

“They’re heated, though,” my buddy says.

“But only to 150, 160 degrees!”

“What a pansy! Calm down, man. Nothing can happen.”

Now it’s my turn to look surprised. This guy, with whom I regularly run, do I really know him?

At the end of the day, even my wife surprises me, after 19 wonderful years together! She bought mozzarella and tomatoes for dinner; when she was washing the tomatoes, she suddenly stopped and said, more to herself than to me: “Maybe not.”

Obviously, she finds it hard. She loves mozzarella with tomatoes, almost as much as she loves arugula with parmesan -- both women’s meals, as I call them.

“Let’s not do it,” she finally decides, turning resolutely to me. What follows is a palace revolution, a turning point, a sensation:

“No more mozzarella with tomatoes.”

Never again? But what then? And what’s under suspicion next, peppers? Should we eat only cereal for dinner? Or should everything, without exception, be boiled or peeled, as if central Europe has suddenly become a part of the tropics or the Third World?

Permission to Eat

In the end, will our wonderful new awareness, which revolves around healthy eating and organic food, quietly implode? Maybe we’ll be able to openly eat fat again -- without embarrassment -- for health reasons.

It’s a field day for conspiracy theorists. It’s also a welcome opportunity for free spirits, whether tattooed or not, to make fun of others. Either way, it will be difficult for people to hold their heads high when they go for a meal.

(Matthias Politycki is the author of "Next World Novella." The expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Matthias Politycki in Hamburg at mp@matthias-politycki.de

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.