Eating Dangerously

I try to avoid the “this-or-that” approach of categorizing anything or anyone into two simplistic camps. Life’s more complex, more gray, than black and white. But I have failed to avoid this tendency when I think about people and food. It seems to me that some people are eager to try new foods, even seeking out new gastronomic experiences. (I count myself in this camp.) Others are content to eat what they know, sticking to and enjoying the familiar what-I’ve-always-eaten, and otherwise avoiding anything “weird.” My background in biology has given me some confidence that—in this case—my either-or worldview just might be right. And I imagine Darwin nodding in approval at my argument.

As our ancient ancestors ventured out across the globe, restless and hungry, eating was a process of continual discovery. We sampled unfamiliar plants, animals, fungi, and algae to determine future meals, eating by trial and error. Of course, it only takes one poisoning for cultural transmission to take over, warning on-lookers and future generations: Do Not Eat. But first there had to be that one daredevil who gave it a go and popped that berry/leaf/mushroom in his or her mouth. Both kinds of eaters were at an advantage. The people willing to try new foods had, at least for a time, exclusive access to that food. (If you don’t tell your kids there’s ice cream in the freezer, more for you!) The people who stuck with what they know avoided deadly food choices. Simple!

Much has been said about humanity’s escape from evolution. We’ve engineered our environment through our medicine, cozy indoor environments, and reliable availability of sanitary food to avoid natural selection. These days, eaters aren’t wondering if the produce they’ve purchased at the grocery store might be poisonous. The 10,000-year vetting process known as agriculture surely guarantees that’s not the case. While choking on food is a perennial risk—Don’t talk with your mouth full!—contemporary eaters fret mainly over foodborne illness, the consequences of overeating, and our own brew of man-made chemicals that are intentionally added to —or otherwise wind up in—our food.

But every so often, some casual forager who assumes that if it looks like a carrot and smells like a carrot, then it is a carrot reminds us just how close we are, as we saunter through the produce aisles, to deadly poisonous plants. There are relatively few degrees of separation between those carrots (and parsley, celery, fennel, cilantro, parsnips) and poison hemlock—the executioner of Socrates. Many, if not most, of our familiar crops have poisonous relatives.

And yes, it is still possible to find crops that are (or were) toxic before being edible. The wild bitter form of almonds is loaded with cyanide, whereas the cultivated sweet almonds contain less cyanide. Mild-mannered lima beans are toxic until boiled for several minutes (again the toxin is cyanide).

If you cook kidney beans in a slow-cooker, be ready for several unpleasant hours. boiling is required to deactivate a toxic protein (called phytohaemagglutinin) that attacks the small intestine. Potatoes—the Jekyll/Hyde of vegetables—are innocuous starch blobs unless they’ve started growing. At that point, they turn malevolent by loading up with a potent toxin called solanine, which can cause death in relatively small doses.

Eating is still kinda dangerous.

So I didn’t hesitate much when, leafing through my seed catalog last winter, I came upon garden huckleberries. The plant is promoted by those who want gobs of berries for jam and pies without waiting for the establishment of standard berry bushes like “real” huckleberries. Garden huckleberries—Solanum melanocerasum—are related to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant and one plant is said to produce enough berries over the course of three months for a pie. But the seeds came with a warning: Only eat fully ripened fruit with no green left on the berry, as unripened fruit can be poisonous. Do not eat raw.

OK, I thought. No problem. I eat elderberry jam, and the same warnings apply. My wife was a little more reluctant. And she had a point. The black berries of garden huckleberries look pretty similar those of the related plant Atropa belladonna, commonly known as deadly nightshade. A couple berries of that plant can kill a child. A handful can kill an adult. I’m not sure how many people can be killed by a pie of deadly nightshade. Should I really introduce this plant to my farm?

(Note: deadly nightshade is native to Europe. It has established in North America but the USDA does not list it as being in Ohio.)

A few months and 80 plants later, I made my first quart of jam from one plant. After several breakfast toasts loaded with the magically bright purple jam, I realized the potential for this berry to test my idea about people and adventurous eating.

I brought the jar and a branch of fruit with me to the farmers market and asked those visiting my table a simple survey question:

Would you like to try this jam, made with these toxic berries?

I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. I enjoyed watching people’s reaction. And I realized the problem with my categorization of people. Sure, some people immediately declined my offer, no questions asked. Others, like a father of three who, accompanied by his children and their mother, enthusiastically said “sure” without pause. He then enlisted his eldest daughter—“She eats anything. Even bugs”—to try it. Again, no questions asked.

But most people occupied the middle ground. They wanted to know more about the plant.

How many times had I eaten it? How are they toxic? Why are they not now toxic?

In the end, these questioners either decided to try a sample or they decided pass, for now. And of course, this had to be the case. Someone has to take the cautious middle ground, sitting back, watching, waiting, asking questions—How you feel?—and maybe, eventually, giving it a try. If it weren’t for these people—the bridge between adventurer-seekers and adventure-avoiders—who knows where’d we be or what we’d be eating.

All told, out of 33 people offered jam, 20 gave it a try. There is one “this-or-that” categorization of those who sampled my jam I can defend: 100% of those who tried the jam said they liked it. The 100% of those who didn’t try it didn’t know what they were missing.

— Story and Photos by Steven Corso