Fun little read on food additives on Lapham’s Quarterly called ‘Death in the Pot‘ by Deborah Blum.
Of course, the 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.
So what is mad honey? It’s just honey, but it comes from bees feeding on some very poisonous flowering plants that flourish along the Black Sea (and elsewhere), notably rhododendrons. These plants contain a class of poisons called grayanotoxins that act directly on the nervous system. The classic symptoms range from tingling and numbness, dizziness and nausea, impaired speech and a loss of balance. Some victims report a sense of being surrounded by spinning lights, others complain of a tunnel vision. “Mad-honey poisoning” can also be fatal, as the compromised nervous system starts shutting down the lungs and heart.
Still lusting after LQ’s ‘Food’ issue. Lots of good stuff in there.