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Culinary Curiosities: Frightening Food History

Bread, a staple of the human diet, has fueled human progress, but also, sometimes, its decline. No, I’m not talking about how today’s popular low-carb diets demonize bread. Rather, I’m referring to a deadly disease carried, innocently enough, in a loaf of rye. Repeated epidemics of this contagion swept across Europe for centuries, maiming and killing tens of thousands. It took a long time for humans to find the culprit, hiding in the grain they milled for flour.

The disease was known as St. Anthony’s Fire or “Holy Fire” because of the terrible tingling and itching sensation on the skin that felt like flames.  People thought the agonizing sickness was sent by God as a punishment for their sins, but actually, it was the result of a fungus that infected crops of rye grain.

Claviceps purpurea fungus causes St. Anthony’s Fire, or more specifically, ergot poisoning. Infected grain has spiky black growths that look the spurs on a rooster’s leg, hence the name “ergot” which is French for spur.  Those who ate contaminated grain suffered the sensation of burning skin, and also diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and headaches. Many victims experienced mania, hysteria, and hallucinations. Alkaloids from the fungus restricted blood circulation, causing a dry form of gangrene: fingers and toes would swell, skin peeled and tissues blackened. Eventually hands, feet, and even whole limbs could fall off.

The first recorded mention of ergot poisoning occurred in the year 857 in the Annals of Xanthes, a historical log of events taking place near the church of Xanten, in the Rhine Valley. The anonymous chronicler describes how “A great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”

In 1089, Frenchman Gaston de la Valloire and his son Girond, survived a bout of “Holy Fire” and started a hospital for victims. A nearby church housed the relics of St. Anthony the Great, whom they believed helped facilitate their cure. St. Anthony, tempted in his life with horrific visions from the devil, was invoked to help ease the disease-induced hallucinations victims suffered. In honor of the saint, the Valloires’ dedicated their hospital to St. Anthony.

Around the same time in France, the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony treated victims of the “Holy Fire.” They applied plant-based balms to the skin to ease the burning sensation and boost circulation. When that didn’t help, they amputated limbs. Victims did sometimes improve, probably from eating uncontaminated bread at the hospital. Eventually the Order of St. Anthony established more than 300 facilities across Europe. The “Holy Fire” became known as “St. Anthony’s Fire.”

Outbreaks continued. Finally, in the 17th Century, rye was identified as a possible source of the disease. French physician Dr. Louis Thuillier noticed that wealthy, urban families, who ate more meat, were less affected by St. Anthony’s Fire than the rural poor, who ate a lot of inexpensive rye bread.  He speculated that something in the diet caused the disease. Another physician, Denis Dodart, wrote a letter in 1676 to French Academy of Sciences about the potential dangers of rye grain. But it wasn’t until 1853  that Louis Rene Tulasne, a French biologist and mycologist, definitively studied Claviceps purpurea and linked it, rather than the rye itself, to ergot poisoning.

In the 19th Century it was possible to monitor crops for the fungus. Cold, wet conditions and a late harvest created ideal conditions for Claviceps purpurea to flourish. If the telltale black spurs were found on the grain, the rye was soaked in a brine solution, causing the ergot to float to the top for easy removal. Once a field was infected, deep tillage and crop rotation could keep fungal spores from germinating again.

Nevertheless, occasional outbreaks still occur. In 1951, in the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit, ergot poisoning affected nearly 250 people. Victims suffered from a creepy-crawling feeling on their skin and severe insomnia.  Hallucinations were so vivid that some victims attempted to jump out of windows and many were forced to wear straight jackets for their protection.  The outbreak was traced to bread made from contaminated grain used at one of the town’s bakeries. Five people died from le pain maudit, the cursed bread.

Today we can enjoy a slice or two of bread without much worry about ergot poisoning. But the dangers to our waistlines? Well, that’s another matter entirely. 

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