There’s a new children’s book out, telling kids that vicious food-mongers are trying to make them obese with fast food. That’s such a pathetic scare! Any food can make you fat if you eat too much.
Chew on these real-world food risks that tormented and killed our ancestors in centuries past:
The ergot fungus killed many thousands of people during the Little Ice Age of 1400—1850. Summers were often short and cold. Rye and wheat often had to be harvested while still wet and subject to mold. The countryside ate bread made from the moldy grain because they had nothing else to eat.
That’s when the ergot fungus got them. It was called “St. Anthony’s fire” because the ergot made their arms and legs burn like fire. They’d suffer violent retching, ravenous hunger, tongue biting and erratic breathing. Often they’d spontaneously break into strange dances with wild, jerky movements—hopping and screaming until they fell unconscious from sheer exhaustion.
Some ergot victims’ hands and feet turned black and dried up because the toxin restricted blood flow to the limbs—and then broke off at the joints! How’s that for a food scare?
Because ergot victims apparently were driven to “dance”—and the wild movements seemed to help them—musicians were sometimes hired to play for them. That’s probably how the Pied Piper of Hamlin saga originated. In the saga, a cheated Pied Piper lured all the town’s children into the mountains with his magic flute, and they were never seen again. In the 17th century, the real piper was trying to make the ergot victims feel better. In real life, the kids didn’t disappear—they died.
The Salem, Massachusetts witch trials in 1692 may well have been a secondary result of the ergot fungus. A girl fell sick with convulsions, contortions, and outbursts of gibberish. The baffled doctors could only offer witchcraft as an explanation. Twenty-five innocent women were put to death! Accounts say bread with a deep reddish cast (i.e. moldy rye) was used in the religious ceremonies that accompanied the witch trials.
They used to find lots of “witches” when food was scarce. Oddly, the witches tended to be older women who could no longer grow their own food and depended on the village to support them. After a series of particularly bad crop years, the little town of Wisensteig, Germany burned 63 women in the year 1563. Then their food supplies seemed more adequate.
Social Security looks like a far better solution.
Until recently, botulism was one of our best—or worst—food risks. Botulism spores are everywhere, and they can live and multiply without oxygen. Botulism was most often encountered in such foods as canned green beans and sausage.
Botulism victims would suffer blurred vision, extreme weakness, and be unable to swallow. It was regarded as an especially bad way to die. Is it any wonder that German and Southern cooking traditions told housewives to cook sausages for 20 minutes and boil green beans for hours? That can kill the botulism spores. But so does modern food processing.
What with pasteurization, refrigeration, crop drying, nutritional additives and all the miracles of the modern food system, food scares today are hard to sustain.
Here’s the best I can think of:
Hey, you! Get off the couch. Mow the lawn, ride your bike or walk twice around the block! Otherwise, I’ll send you to bed with no supper.
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.