July 6, 2011

Doing Them In, Domestically

Agatha Christie and the rest of the cosy mystery writers were onto something, but they got some of their inspiration from life. As Deborah Blum writes in this article for Lapham's Quarterly, cooks, manufacturers, and killers (and they might have been the same folks) have for centuries accidentally and purposefully "done in" those around them. And the government and scientists have been trailing along behind slowly catching up.

Sometimes the culprits were food additives.

Oh. Charming.

Read on. It's great stuff. But don't read it around mealtime.

[T]he ancients were also fully aware that foods could be dangerous without human help, hence the warnings regarding meat consumption. And they’d learned from long-time experience that even routinely safe foods carried unexpected risks. Consider the wonderfully bizarre story of “mad honey” and the Greek army commanded by Xenophon in 401 bc. Returning from an unsuccessful raid in Persia, Xenophon’s men raided beehives along the eastern edge of the Black Sea, acquiring a treasure trove of local honey. By day’s end, the raiding party was immobilized. They were like men “greatly intoxicated,” wrote Xenophon, whose army was suffering from nausea, inability to walk straight, and lethargy. Over three centuries later, the Roman general Pompey’s troops also encamped by the Black Sea and gorged themselves on the local honey. Pompey lost three squadrons to the enemy fighters who had deliberately placed honeycombs in the path of his troops.

Borax came first on the list, partly because it was so widely used by meat processors. Derived from the element boron, it slowed decomposition but could also react with proteins and firm them up, giving rotting meat a more shapely appearance. Borax had thus figured in the “embalmed beef” scandal of the Spanish-American War, in which officers in the U.S. Army accused their suppliers of shipping tins of refrigerated beef that was treated with “secret chemicals” and canned beef that was no more than a “bundle of fibers.” “It looked well but had an odor similar to that of a dead human body after being injected with preservatives,” an Army medical officer wrote of the refrigerated meat, adding that when cooked, the product tasted rather depressingly like boric acid.

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