What's the story behind poisonous food preparation?

There are numerous types of food that are poisonous if not prepared correctly, the most infamous of which (to me, at least) is the Japanese fugu. The question that arises for me from this and other types of food that are poisonous unless prepared correctly is: How did these ever come to be known as foods in the first place?

One would assume that after seeing someone eat the potential food item, then die or become very ill, one wouldn’t think ‘well let’s see what happens when I cook it differently!’ but rather ‘that stuff’s poisonous, better not have anyone eat it ever again’.

Wow, we’ve eaten everything. Grandma’s already died from starvation. Only thing left are these poisonous roots–maybe if we boil them and boil them and change the water a couple of times, it’ll be better than starving to death.

Trial and error can be a long process, but we’ve had a long time.

Yep, it’s pretty much due to starvation. Remember that for 99.999% of our history the choice was between preparing a poison another way and seeing what happens, and dying of starvation. You weren’t going to be given food just because you were hungry.

Also remember that most of these preparations are pretty obvious.

Fugu isn’t that hard to prepare if you just want to make it harmless. All you need to do is remove the skin and the guts and was it well. The muscle itself is quite harmless, and of course that’s also the obvious part to eat. Top quality restaurant fugu is hard to prepare because they deliberately leave in enough of the poisonous organs to give the diner a slight buzz.

Other poisonous foods are prepared by washing or cooking really well or by leaving them to age. Washing and cooking are pretty obvious ways to remove toxins. You wouldn’t need to be a genius to work that out. In the case of aging treatments it doesn’t even require any effort. The food that was left when the famine really started to bite would already be well aged. When someone desperate enough to eat the usually toxic food did so and survived the secret revealed itself.

Very few foods actually require complex preparation or the addition of multiple ingredients to make them safe to eat.

Sure… washing is a no brainer… but consider the case of Cassava.
Cassava needs multiple rounds of soaking, cooking, fermentation to get rid of the pretty nasty toxins it harbors.

This preparation is detailed and complex.

If Cassava is prepared improperly (even slightly), it can cause neurological paralysis. This neurological paralysis dosent come om immediately, and often happens late enough that Cassava isnt immediately associated with the cause.
There must have been some serious trial and error going on for people to discover this process, with hundreds of casualties.

It’s a wonder they just didnt give up and chalk up Cassava to be poisonous and inedible.

Im not sure if believe that eating Fugu arose out of starvation. Fugu takes some effort to catch. Even in lean times, the ocean has plenty of to offer (especially in plant like like kelp) such as shoreline shellfish and crustaceans that taking the effort to catch fugu seems superfluous.

And cassava (yuca) is a major staple in the Caribbean; I ate it there almost daily, kind of like how potatoes are served with meat in the U.S.

I believe that acorns are similar, in this way. They were the primary staple of native Californians, but had to have toxins leeched out to be edible. Olives are like that, too, I think.

No, it doesn’t. Cassava is treated either by cooking or by soaking or by washing. Never all three.

“For some smaller-rooted “sweet” varieties, cooking is sufficient to eliminate all toxicity.”
"The large roots are peeled and then ground into flour, which is then soaked in water, squeezed dry several times, and toasted. …
“The traditional method used in West Africa is to peel the roots and put them into water for 3 days to ferment. The roots then are dried or cooked.”

IOW the material is either finely divided and washed a a few times, or just left to soak for a few days. Neither of those processing technologies is complicated or anything but obvious, and neither requires repeated rounds of soaking, cooking and fermenting.

If an object is contaminated, what is the most obvious way to remove it? Either wash it multiple times or leave it to soak for a few days. The exact same process we use when we want to clean anything else, whether it be clothes or car parts.

Yes, and that still happens commonly, but it beats immediate starvation.

There’s a place in Australia where there are caves with hundreds of skeletons of people that died of cancer at 40, over a period of centuries. It was caused by eating cycad nuts. The nuts were prepared sufficiently to to longer be acutely toxic, but not another to render them harmless.

Chances are they never discovered that fact.

Why would they? Treating it so it’s not accutely toxic is as simple as either washing or soaking. And as you note, the chronic poisoning symptoms were probably never linked to cassava.

No it doesn’t. I frequently catch pufferfish with my bare hands in rock pools.
They’re a bloody nuisance to tropical fishermen because they are fearless and they steal bait.

If they are hard to catch i Japan today it’s solely because of the fugu fishing market.

If the ocean has plenty to offer then, by definition, it isn’t a lean time. By definition lean times means there isn’t much food on offer.

Humans, like all other animals, expand to occupy the niche available. If there is a surfeit of oceanic food then wee will multiply until that food becomes at least periodically scarce.

I couldn’t find anything on that, but I did find http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lytico-Bodig_disease. Is that the same thing or just related?

I’m pretty sure the culprit in (some) acorns is tannins - which need to be leeched out. Mostly it makes them unpleasant tasting - which is not that big a factor if you’re starving to death. Many varieties of acorns are perfectly fine the way they are or with a bit of roasting.

According to Euell Gibbons (not an Anthropologist, I know), acorns must have been a staple food for much of humanity over much of our existence - and yet are now relegated to the category of “pretty much inedible”.

And again on acorns, to treat them you just need to soak them in water (as well as remove the outer husk and maybe crush or grind or cook them a little bit, but I assume that’s in the realm of obvious?). Doesn’t seem that impossible to figure out. “Hey, these things are really bitter, but I noticed it’s not as bad when I wash them real well first. And when I forgot a batch and left them sitting in water overnight, they were even less bitter. Then someone found out that soaking them in a stream, with water running over them made them taste not really bitter at all.”

Pokeweed is another one of those items. Pokeweed needs to be boiled for an hour, the water changed, boiled for another hour, the water poured off, THEN you can cook them! But then, cooking greens in general makes them easier to digest so it’s really an extension of what folks would likely do anyway.

I think one reason you don’t see a lot of poke sallet and acorns on the table these days is that they take TIME to prepare. Hours. If there are food that are less time and labor intensive why would you bother with the ones requiring so much time and effort?

An exception to that is quiona - in it’s natural state it’s another one that requires extensive soaking. However, since I can purchase it in little boxes with the toxins already removed for me it’s 15 minutes of prep. Then again, it’s a relatively expensive grain, probably reflecting the processing required.

Let’s also keep in mind that many people would have had the ability to test the items on people other than themselves.

Pigs and dogs will both eat virtually anything. Toxicity is not always the same between species, but we still use animals to judge the safety of products for human use. And many ancient peoples had captives or slaves that could be used for the final batch of tests.

You might not want to risk testing things on your slaves and animals in the good times, but it might be worth feeding them weird things during a famine in which they might die anyway.

Did you mean quinoa?

Yes, that is the correct spelling :slight_smile:

Geat username/post content combo! :slight_smile:

Well, sometimes all three. The Central African preparation of “Baton de Manioc” involves soaking, washing, fermenting and cooking. It’s pretty damn tasty, too!

Is fugu better known to the travelling American as the poisonous blowfish?

“Poisonous blowfish” is a redundant. They’re all poisonous. Fugu is just the Japanese word for pufferfish/blowfish.

While this may be true, this is a good way to forewarn those unsuspecting!

Where’s the surprise in that?