Did King Louis XIV and her courtesans harbor more parasites than common street urchins? Did food poisoning play a role int he Salem witch trials, leading to the hanging of nineteen men and women? Which poison recently laced the food of Russian ex-KGB agent Viktor Yushchenko, and how did it kill him? In Death in the Pot, internationally renowned food expert Morton Satin documents several culinary mishaps and misdeeds in an engrossing narrative that spans from the ancient world to the present day.
Historic events both tragic and bizarre have resulted from adulterated food. In the fifth century BCE, the great plague of Athens, probably caused by contaminated cereals, led to the defeat of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. In the prescientific Middle Ages, illnesses resulting from spoiled food were often attributed to the wrath of God or malevolent spirits. Heavily infectious ergot induced a spasmodic muscle condition, which the Church named "St. Anthony's Fire" and interpreted as retribution by God on unbelievers. Similarly, in seventeenth-century America, the hallucinogenic symptoms of moldy grain were thought by Puritans to be signs of witchcraft. Even the madness of King George, which influenced the outcome of the American Revolution, may have been induced by accidental arsenic poisoning.
Moving into more modern times, Satin recounts the story of "Ginger Jake", a Prohibition-era concoction that left a string of customers paralyzed. The secret ingredient-Lindol, used in hydraulic systems and to prepare lacquers. This is one of the many instances that led to efforts by industrial societies to make food supplies safer; in some cases, these efforts were heroic. For example, in the early days of the FDA a "Poison Squad" was formed, consisting of young scientists who willing acted as guinea pigs to test the toxic effects of chemical additives. Satin concludes by describing the measures taken to protect the public and the food supply against possible bioterrorism attacks.