“Death in the Pot”

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The Story

“Death in the Pot”
by Deborah Blum
Lapham’s Quarterly, 2011

The Pitch

When the Poison Squad sat down to dinner – in that cozy little kitchen in the basement of the federal agriculture building – the meal was guaranteed excellent. Roast chicken, braised beef, buttered asparagus, hot rolls, fresh fruit pies with coffee and cream.

The only catch, as dictated by squad boss, Harvey Washington Wiley in 1902, was that one of those dishes, and the squad members never knew which, would be laced with a suspected poison. Wiley chose specifically from a list of food additives – especially preservatives – that he suspected to be dangerous to American consumers.

And it was quite a list: formaldehyde, copper sulfate, borax and more, all rigorously banned from the food supply today. Wiley – nicknamed “Old Borax” by the press– came up with those Poison Squad experiment as part of a crusade to educate both the public and legislators about the risks involved. Specifically, he wanted to persuade the federal government to start protecting American citizens from food poisoning.

But although Wiley and his squad members did successfully bring about the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, neither they, nor later food safety regulators, have figured out a way to keep contaminants from creeping into our daily diet. In fact, last year’s Food Safety Modernization Act passed largely the risks remain so high. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 76 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths are caused by food poisoning every year.

History itself suggests that this may be one of our most intractable battles. And it’s history – or at least the history of food poisoning – that I’d like to propose as a story/essay for Lapham’s Quarterly. As we wrestle today with the demons of salmonella and other microbes, as we struggle to keep toxic compounds out of our breakfasts and dinners, there are both important and fascinating lessons to be learned from taking a look at apparently perpetual role that food poisoning plays in human history.

Just to cite a few examples: Historians now suspect that the great plague of Athens, in fifth centuryB.C.E. was likely caused by contaminated cereals. Some even argue that this
food-borne illness played a major role in the defeat of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. Scholars suggest that hallucinations and odd symptoms mistaken for witchcraft in the 17th century may have simply been food poisoning, such as toxins in moldy bread. Of course, not all food poisoning is accidental. Consider, for instance, the deliberate poisoning of westerners living in China during the 19th century Opium Wars or the lethal dinners served by the Borgias when they sought to change Italian politics.

Food poisoning has, in fact, shaped our history and that’s the heart of the story I’d like to tell here. It’s a great context for the challenges of today and it’s a fascinating part of history, one that I’m well positioned to write. I’ve written about food and drink safety for magazines such as Slate. I write about chemistry and culture on my blog, Speakeasy Science. And my recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, is a narrative of toxic compounds in early 20th century America. I think this is an exciting opportunity and I hope very much that you’ll consider this proposal kindly.

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