Some anthropologists theorize that the murderous mania of the Salem Witch Trials wasn't caused by religious panic or hectic politics. They blame ergot, a grain fungus that causes paranoia, hallucinations and convulsions—the same symptoms that were thought to be caused by "bewitchment."
Historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman recently spoke about this in her lecture series Masters of Social Gastronomy. She paired up with Jonathan Soma to connect food to the times and places of our past, whether it's cuisine from the Colonial era or the chop suey of early Chinese immigrants to the US. At Brooklyn's Littlefield, Lohman and Soma talked about monster myths and culinary culture, ergotism and its possible role in the Salem Witch Trials.
We caught up with Lohman to assuage our own paranoia about the possibilities of a modern-day outbreak of a foodborne epidemic that could bring on the zombie apocalypse.
Hopes&Fears: How often you come across the intersection between narcotics and food?
Sarah Lohman: Maybe two years ago, Masters of Social Gastronomy actually did a whole talk all about the intersection between narcotics and food, which is available on our podcast. I focus on history and my speaking partner Jonathan Soma, who co-founded the Brooklyn Brainery, he does science, and in my history section I talked about things like the history of cocaine in Coca Cola, when opium was trendy, things like that, and I believe he talked about how to cook with weed—how to get the best out of your weed, how to sell your pot brownies—it was like how to make the best pot brownies possible.
HF: How do werewolves and witches relate to food?
SL: Being so close to Halloween, we wanted to do something about the realities behind monster myths because there is this idea of consumption behind a lot of monster myths. Vampires drink blood, werewolves eat babies or whatever, and I had heard a little bit about ergot and that it was suspected as a cause for some of the ideas of mass demonic possessions, werewolf sightings and potentially even the Salem Witch Trials. So that's what I knew I wanted to talk about and since then, I've been looking into the facts behind that and researching it.
Sarah Lohman is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where she began working in a museum at the age of 16, cooking historic food over a wood-burning stove. Currently, she works with museums and galleries around the city to create public programs focused on food, including The American Museum of Natural History, The New York Public Library and The Brooklyn Historical Society. She chronicles her explorations in culinary history on her blog, FourPoundsFlour.com, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NPR.
HF: In regards to ergot poisoning [ergotism], a lot of the description of it is as a disease or a pathology. But are there people studying it as an intentional state that's induced?
SL: That's interesting. Ergot is now used in some forms of medicine because it's been used as an abortive for a very long time, and it's also used as a way to induce labor in contemporary medicine. But as far as an intentional state, the answer is no. The reason why is that is that ergotism is essentially food poisoning, but in a non-bacterial sense. You're eating something that is disrupting your physiology, and the reason it has a pretty dramatic effect on human beings is that it contains a number of alkaloids, one of which is isoergine. This is an alkaloid that is very, very, similar to LSD. But unlike LSD, the effects produced by it are not potentially pleasant—you don't have a good trip. You never have a good trip. It only produces an unpleasant altered state in which you're experiencing mania, delirium, paranoia, you're seeing troubling visions, and depending on what other alkaloids are involved, there is some variation within ergot. You could have things like convulsions, interrupted speech, vomiting, diarrhea, and it can even cause gangrenous symptoms, you could lose limbs, and eventually it could kill you.
So it's not something that's ever been used as a recreational drug, and it wasn't until 1670 that people could link the symptoms with the consumption of infected rye and rye bread. Before that, these were the consistent symptoms of bewitchment, which essentially meant that a demon possessed you or that a witch had cursed you. These symptoms were consistent over place and time, and this state of being was eventually linked to ergotism.
HF: Do these alkaloids exist in distilled products like whiskey and things like that?
SL: Well, alkaloids in general exist in a lot of things. For example caffeine is an alkaloid. The chemicals in cocaine are alkaloids. So alkaloids, we like them. They do a lot of things to our bodies that put us in altered states. But isoergine is also in morning glory seeds, and morning glory seeds were traditionally used by Aztecs to put themselves into altered states. So that's one of the places where this particular alkaloid was used to a positive effect. But no the alkaloids in general, or at least as far as I know, in ergot are not used in a positive way, nor do they have a positive effect. So I would not recommend going to like a rye granary and chewing on some ergot kernels to get high, because it's not going to end well.
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HF: So where does demonic possession come into play?
SL: So in the medieval era, particularly between about 1300 to about 1600, this disease [ergotism], which we now know as food poisoning, was thought of as demonic possession. People would go to monasteries to be treated, where they most likely got better because they weren't eating rye bread while they were in the monastery. In terms of the Salem Witch Trials, there are several well-researched papers that have put forward this theory that—although there were probably other aspects to the Salem Witch Trials too, like thrill-seeking and politics—there was mass-hysteria that some theorize were prompted by ergotism. It's a disease that women, and particularly young women, are the most susceptible to. The fact that the accusers were all teenage girls makes sense along with the disease.
Also, ergot thrives in wet, cold years, which 1691 and 1692, the years the witch trials happened, were. There's a lot of other things that back up that evidence. And basically these scholars are saying that these nine young women—and then eventually some adult women and men—were actually afflicted by something. And much like the European Witch Trials, the last of which was only 50 years before the Salem Witch Trials, the reason they were able to find for their illnesses was witchcraft because they didn't have a better explanation for what was happening. From there, people that were afflicted began accusing people they didn't like or people that were outsiders in town of being witches who gave them these afflictions. So it's a really interesting body of research.
HF: Is ergotism still a danger to the public?
SL: Currently no, because ergot kernels are really obvious when you look at pictures of them. They're usually larger than the grains they infect and they're black. But they were so common in rye that, until the 17th Century, they were even included in botanical drawings of the rye plant because people thought they were a part of rye. That's how common they were. People didn't see them as a fungal infection. After they figured out that this was a dangerous fungus, they started separating them out for the rye grains, and that solved a lot of the problems. Today, we not only do that within processing, but we also use anti-fungal too, so that would prevent the distribution of the ergot spores that cause the ergot growth. They are in some ways a little bit like... Have you ever seen huitlacoche, the fungus that grows on ears of corn? It's kind of like that, but huitlacoche is a delicious delicacy and tastes like corn and mushrooms. Ergot kills you. So that's a pretty big difference.
HF: And there's a taqueria in Hell's Kitchen where you can order huitlacoche.
SL: Yeah, American farmers still see huitlacoche as a waste, but there's someone, I think Sean Brock, who is trying to create a culture around it like in Mexico, where huitlacoche is prized because it's worth three to five times a regular ear of corn. It's similar to ergot in that it's a fungus that's growing in place of a kernel. But part of the reason ergot is confused with rye is because ergot actually has a purplish-red color, especially when it's ground, so bread that's made from flour with ergot in it looks similar to rye, which is a very dark grain that creates very dark-hued bread such as pumpernickel. So it's difficult to detect the ergot from the color of the bread.
people executed during the Salem Witch Trials. All were hung with the exception of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death. There is no record as to where they were buried.
Source: Salem Witch Museum
HF: So is there anything in this research that you've found that terrifies you?
SL: Terrifies me? I mean, the disease itself can be really, really disgusting and horrific, especially in the gangrenous varieties where... well, ergotism constricts the blood vessels, and so it gives you gangrene, gangrene being the name for when your flesh starts dying. And there have been outbreaks of ergotism in the last hundred years. There was a big one in France in 1957, it's happened on and off in Russia in the 20th Century, and then as recently as 2001 there was an outbreak in Ethiopia. So it's happening still in developing countries and in rural areas where they have a cold, wet growing season and are growing rye. Those are all the conditions that produce ergot. So it can still strike people, and it's a really horrific and potentially deadly disease.
HF: I've been watching The Walking Dead lately. A lot of this stuff has been on my mind. Real life zombies.
SL: Imagine that this is 1300 and you're afflicted with this disease that's making you convulse, that's making you be paranoid, that's just putting you in a bad mental state... then imagine having no explanation for that. Today we can look at that and you can say you've been poisoned; it's ergotism, and we can treat that. But in 1300 when you didn't have that connection, that physiological connection with what was going on, you would believe that you've been cursed or bewitched, or possessed by demons. And that in a way is truly horrifying—not only that you're having this intense physical experience, but that it's completely plausible that it's caused by something that is supernatural, because there was no medical explanation. That would be really, really scary.
HF: I feel like The Walking Dead is like a PSA about how to react in the case of a zombie apocalypse.
SL: Yeah! And that might have been how some of these epidemics felt. There was one in the 10th Century in France where 40,000 people died in the south of France because of ergotism. That must have been a very, very scary time to live in.
Editor: Gabriella Garcia