On Poison

Never trust a big butt and a smile—Bell Biv Devoe

My sophomore year of college, I poured a bunch of laxatives into a pot of tomato sauce I’d planned to serve one of my roommates for the dinner she’d demanded I make her. She was a real sourpatch diva, you can ask anyone. The goal was diarrhea. I didn’t want her to know what I’d done. I wanted her to stop insisting I cook dinner for her. She had it coming. Promise.

In the end, I didn’t put that marinara on the rigatoni, and not because I chickened out. I 86-ed the sugo because it tasted metallic and bitter—noticeably so. Years later, I admit, I’m not proud of this. It’s not something I talk about. It’s not that I’m ashamed or remorseful of my almost-crime; I’m upset that my sauce sucked.

I failed as a poisoner and as a cook, and what I realize now is that they’re two branches on the same tree. That’s a particularly apt analogy when you recall that in addition to toxic carbon-based compounds known as alkaloids—your strychnine, your nicotine, your coniine—there are the fauna from which many of those derive—the Asian vomit button tree, tobacco, and hemlock, respectively. Or think of arsenic; the chemical element (As) is a byproduct of mining and smelting metal ores, and of volcanic activity. Found in soil, water and the air we breathe, it’s readily absorbed into plants—leafy greens and rice. Think about it, arsenic is yet another expression of terroir.

As anyone who read The Hunger Games (or saw the film) can tell you, knowing your roots and shoots can be the difference between life—yours or someone else’s—and death—ditto. Katniss Everdeen knew which buds should be turned into topical balms, which seeds could staunch gnawing hunger, which berries could bump off the competition. Perhaps you don’t think Suzanne Collins is a credible source. What about Luigi Ballerini? In his thoroughly researched, literary, and informative guide A Feast of Weeds, he writes about “the number of opinions regarding how [mallow] should be eaten: cooked or raw.” Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastus, a.k.a. the “father of botany,” insisted mallow be exposed to fire before eaten. Centuries later, Hildegard von Bingen confirmed the belief and asserted that raw mallow should be considered a form of poison. Then there was John Evelyn, who wrote a book about salads and, according to Ballerini, claimed, “mallow has above all, a medicinal function, (it is indeed an excellent laxative.)” (Noted.)

For all I know, there is mallow to be gathered off the asphalt grid I’ve called home for most of my life. If it’s out there, the chances of a forager’s finding it today are good, as long as he’s done his research and knows what he’s looking for and where it grows. Then, if he picks the shrub, he will have to figure out how to use it—if he should use it.

Concocting a restorative or lethal potion requires a knowledge of ingredients, proportions and technique similar to that needed for making a gravy or stew. Witches’ brew or soup, double double toil and trouble—or triumph, we’re talking about chemical reactions that transform raw materials into something intended for ingestion.

But, to go back to that terrible tornado of a tomato sauce, there’s also the art of sprinkling poison into wine, or baking it into cake. How much is necessary to get the job done without spoiling the soufflé?

Being an adept intoxicator entails being able to hide your active ingredients. This would seem antithetical to everything to which today’s highest-achieving chefs apply their technical skills. It’s easy to take for granted that, as a professional restaurant cook, your guiding mantra is to let the best ingredients shine, to draw out their essences, to get out of their way. This presupposes that the produce is there to be had, and that everyone has access to it. This, we understand, is not the case for the greater population. Before the rise of the machines, the bulk of cooking was performed as a magic trick: at home, (mostly) women took what they could afford or scrounge up—vegetable scraps, salted pork, cured fish, bones, offal, stale bread, flour, meal, rice, potatoes, wine—and tried to hide its ugliness, to turn what was blighted, grizzly or foul into something warming, comforting, and sustaining.

Yes, yes, I know, we have managed to insert the phrase “farm-to-table” into the pop-cultural lexicon, but it exists, for most, as a trend, not a philosophy or guiding principle. And even as a trend, it reaches only the upper half of the proverbial food chain. While we’re sitting here getting hungry for a gorgeous carrot steak borne of a lovingly, sustainably grown vegetable, most of the folks at home are looking at those pathetic frozen baby orange nubs covered in a chalky-white film. And that’s if they’ve even bothered or been able to buy carrots at all.

Sometimes I think we’d be better off focusing our efforts on returning Americans to their pots and pans instead of trying to impress upon them the significance of better-sown seeds. If we encouraged them to cook, and to cook with whatever they can, now, they’d learn how to transform what’s available to them—no matter how bad—into a meal. That would prime them for the arrival of better harvests when those finally come to fruition. Getting them to realize the potential of whole grains or care about where their burger comes from, without instilling a knowledge of or interest in cooking at all, only ensures that when Wendy’s or Sonic launches a new line of “mindful” sandwiches, they’ll queue up for it.

Optimizing whatever frozen, irresponsibly grown or cloned, cheapest-option carrot is currently available at the store, or whatever sliced white bread you have on hand (commercially produced or otherwise), draws on the same skills deployed to make a pot brownie, or a shit-starting, chemically-altered batch of marinara sauce, taste good. If you can incorporate laxatives into something delicious, you’ve got talent. It’s like Demosthenes, the fourth-century (B.C.) Greek orator who practiced speeches with pebbles in his mouth: if he could silver-tongue it with rocks rolling around, just imagine how honeyed and convincing his words would be without impediment. And really, are laxatives all so bad when compared to Coca-Cola or Big Macs or Cap’n Crunch?

Right, we’re back to the runs.

I know what you’re thinking. How unladylike! What kind of girl sends another girl to the bathroom with the Hershey Squirts? What kind of person poisons a so-called friend? Let me remind you we’re only talking about a little gastrointestinal trouble, and as the record shows, the deed was never done.

Let me also share this fact from a Wired.com post written by Deborah Blum, author of the extraordinary Poisoner’s Handbook:

The U. S. Department of Justice’s report on Homicide Trends in the United States (1980 to 2008) offers up this statistical insight: of all poison killers in that time period 60.5 percent male and 39.5 percent female … Of course, most murderers, period, are male. The justice department’s homicide trend report I cited, finds, that killers are statistically 89.5 percent males and 10.5 percent females … In other violent crimes, male dominance is much more pronounced than in poison killings. Over all for felony murders? That’s 93.2 percent male offenders, 6.8 percent female …This reminds us that men are overall more dangerous, more inclined to respond with violence. But when women do turn to murder then, yes, poison becomes more of an equal opportunity weapon.

After reading that breaking news, I was compelled to investigate female poisoners. I did not condone their actions, but I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued and a little impressed by their success. That’s the kind of murder that involves a lot of pre-meditation and scheming: there’s the procuring of the weapon, the mastering of the recipe, the staring of the victim in the face as you, full of malice, serve him his jiggly JELL-O parfait or beloved potato gratin. Who were these angels of death who smilingly presented their targets an unexpected last supper? I got lost in the dark arts for a while. There was something so intoxicating about the tale of Nannie Doss who had what may have been a compulsion to take out the thorns in her side with a bowl of stewed prunes. (Speaking of diarrhea … God, what a horrible send-off. She could at least have put it in a fruit pie.) Or what about the one where Mary Ann Cotton infused her black puddings with an extra shot of darkness before handing them off to her unwitting victims?

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. It’s not like on our 18th birthdays, our mothers give each of their daughters a Lucrezia Borgia-style poison-filled ring to apply as needed. Titled “The Imperfect Myth of the Female Poisoner,” Blum’s article seeks to disabuse the public of the notion that ladies love to lace. “If you actually bother to scroll back through famous poisoners of history or to check the crime statistics you will realize first that 1) poison is a gender-neutral weapon and, perhaps more central to my point, 2) a greater proportion of poisoners are men.”

The author goes on to cite other experts in the field like Joni Johnston, who finds that most convicted contaminators are men, and that this statistic is largest when the prey is female. When the poisoned party is male, the killer is just as likely to be a man or woman. We are not going after our own kind; we strike the less-fair sex. This has little to do with biological wiring: as Daniel Kevles points out, it’s about admittance. “Noting the place that women held in society, he explains [via Blum]: ‘Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines.” We had access to the ammo, too; it was readily available in the form of silver polish (cyanide), beauty products, colored candy (arsenic), over-the-counter energizing tonics (strychnine), all items we were expected (and allowed) to shop for as part of our housekeeping duties. We could unload the shopping bags, get supper started, and still have time to whip up a special dessert—the ultimate final course.

Sounds so easy, I’m surprised more women haven’t tried it. Given a choice between putting stones in your pocket and walking into the river or incorporating a spoonful of silver polish into a batch of cookies for your abusive or neglectful husband, who wouldn’t choose to bake? And yet, let’s remember that, although venom has (no thanks to characters like Snow White’s Evil Queen) become the presumed criminal mascot of corrupt vixens everywhere, only 39.5 percent of all poisonings are attributed to women.

Percentages are relative. A 39-percent female statistic in another context does not yield the same prejudice; one realm’s feast is another’s famine. Take, for example, the restaurant industry. As Eater’s restaurant critic Ryan Sutton learned while researching an article for Bloomberg titled “Women Everywhere in Food Empires But No Head Chefs,” “There’s certainly no shortage of women in the larger hospitality industry. They’ve made up a majority of its employees since at least 2004. And women make up 39 percent of its cooks, according to the latest data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” What is one to make of all this? I suppose that if we were to see an increase in restaurant-generated death by poisoning we’d be pointing fingers at the women on the line in the responsible kitchens. And oh, I know, maybe THIS is the reason we don’t see more female head chefs; they can’t be trusted. They would surely turn their establishments into mass murder headquarters: daily specials would include salads full of dicey-looking mushrooms, fugu liver kebabs, soda made from elderberry root syrup, cherry pit panna cotta.

The bottom line is: women are reputed to be competent and devious enough to successfully poison people. We are also relied upon and, often, expected to cook for our families. We’re not deemed legit restaurant material, is all. You think we’re at home, threatening your existence with the casserole we put on the table; but you don’t take us seriously as professional cooks. You ask us to talk about how our gender informs our work, but you don’t listen. You’re convinced you already get it; still, it makes you feel good to say you engaged in the dialogue. You think it’s a compliment when you tell us our palates are more refined, or that our food is more heartfelt—that it’s okay if we’re not interested in sous-vide because the way we form gnocchi with our hands is its own kind of gift. It’s like you can taste our female touch. What you haven’t figured out is that this is insulting. And it can be dangerous. When, all in the name of championing us, you pour that kind of poison into the ears of the public, you do everyone a disservice.

I’d hate to think what might happen if enough of us got riled up about it. Maybe we’d hold a bake sale, and tell you to buy those cookies—no, not the ones over there, the others, tied with the pretty red ribbon. Or maybe we’d invite you to dinner. You’d arrive to take in the scent of a long-cooked sugo al pomodoro, anticipate the heap of pasta on the plate. And it would not disappoint. Years were spent getting that sauce just right.


Related articles

The MAD Guide to Smoking Foods

Guillemette Barthouil

Everything you need to know to start smoking foods well.

On Eating Insects

Josh Evans

How can we make insects delicious to the western palate?

New newsletter incoming

Sign up now

We'll soon be re-launching our newsletter in a new format. Each monthly edition will contain a deep dive into an industry topic, from the Ryanair-ification of restaurant reservations to what soccer has to do with reducing sexual harassment on the floor.