Growing up in Maryland, at ground zero for seafood culture, I learned several hardcore food rules, one of the hardest being that you don’t mess with fish or shellfish you can’t vouch for or that might have been sitting out too long. (Another is that you can’t eat just anybody’s potato salad, but that’s another story.)
I’ve known the pain of having to reluctantly throw away a plate or two of shrimp left in the car overnight. It might not kill you. But why tempt fate and botulism? Also, if you eat it and get sick, your grandma’s going to find out and say “Girl, didn’t I tell you about eating bad seafood?” So when I heard about two recent viral TikTok food trends, that involve ordering edible goodies delivered in questionable packaging with no apparent ice or preservation, it triggered my inner Marylander spidey sense. And the wrath of my seafood-loving ancestors.
If it sounds like I’m taking this too seriously, well, yeah, I am. You don’t mess with that stuff. I’ve admitted to falling into the early-COVID 2 a.m. e-shopping rabbit hole and a week later receiving a random snarky T-shirt I barely remember ordering. More than once. But I draw the line at food that could hurt you.
Apparently everyone hasn’t gotten those lessons. There’s been a lot in the news about curious and hungry social media fans ordering something called Pink Sauce, a condiment made by a photogenic Miami chef, on TikTok. The sauce’s taste, that has been described as ranch-dressing-like and looks like the Luster’s Pink Lotion that I used to moisturize my hair back in the day, has created an uproar, as the nutritional labels appear to be wrong, the ingredients seem unclear and some of the unrefrigerated bottles arrived after having exploded. Also, the sauce contains milk, and you know that dairy is right up there with seafood on the list of ingredients you have to be very, very careful with.
I got particularly twitchy after watching the video of a TikTok user named Diva Tillis, who posted a warning about the online ordering of something called spicy bowls, which seem to be traditionally made with cooked eggs and sausage, but which she had selected with crawfish. Her warning: “Don’t do it.”
She went on to show a revolting mess of unrefrigerated madness, including crawfish that was shipped in what looks like a styrofoam cooler with no ice or anything. I mean, who thinks this is a good idea? I wouldn’t eat seafood that my grandma shipped that wasn’t wrapped up like an igloo. And I would never have to, because she’d never do that. Who raised y’all? (Answer: Not my grandma.)
This sent me down a Twitter outrage rabbit hole, as these things sometimes do, to confirm that I wasn’t overreacting about how any perishable foods, especially seafood, has to be carefully well-preserved and shipped really, really carefully. I even got a festive tweet of approval from no less of an authority than Faidley’s Seafood, home of very delicious jumbo lump crab cakes.
So why is this happening?
The deal, according to Kimberly Ellis of Breaking Bread, formerly in Pigtown, is that these trends are popular and closely tied to viral trends. “Everybody wants their viral moment,” says Ellis, whose restaurant is currently catering out of Mount Vernon’s Hotel Revival and is scheduled to reopen on Park Avenue at the end of the year. “Think of the Popeye’s chicken sandwiches, that got so much advertising from people putting in their own memes, so much that Popeye’s put them in their commercials.”
That’s how marketing works, right? You find a popular thing everyone wants to be a part of, and hope they’re willing to spend money on it. While Ellis, as a small business owner, says she supports the spirit and efforts of these TikTok chefs, many of whom are Black women like her, she insists that they have to follow food regulations, including clearly listing ingredients and shipping carefully. “Our industry is highly regulated. We have to be really careful. We have to throw food out that’s been sitting out a certain amount of time.”
But, she adds, harmful products can’t go viral if no one is buying them. “The responsibility doesn’t just lie in the person producing these things, but with the person consuming them. We have to be more diligent as consumers. We have culpability in that.”
So let that be a lesson to you. If you don’t know what’s in it, or how it’s going to get to you, don’t put it in your mouth, lest your viral moment becomes food poisoning.