4 Everyday Foods With WTF Dark Histories
You'd be forgiven for never stopping to think -- like, really think -- about your food's history. You should, though, because as we've explained countless times already, the stuff you shovel into your mouth can have an infinitely crazier background than you might imagine ...
Lemons Were Promoted As A Cure For The 1918 Flu Pandemic
In 1918, the world was struck by a devastating outbreak of H1N1 influenza -- which, over two years, infected 500+ million people and killed anywhere between 17-50 million.
The outbreak terrified Americans with its scale and ferocity. Within a matter of months, the virus had infected every major population center in the country, from New York and Boston, to Nashville and St. Louis, to Los Angeles and San Francisco -- a virological road trip which in four months, killed 292,000 people. It must've seemed like the world was ending ... which, as we're now acutely aware, makes people do a whole bunch of dumb shit.
One thing that a lot of old-timey folks went wild for was pseudoscience 'home remedies,' with the most popular of these, by far, being the humble lemon. Major newspapers and politicians hyped lemons as a "fruit foe," which not only prevented people from catching the virus but could cure an infected person outright. This led to the Los Angeles Herald producing possibly the horniest public health announcement in history.
The consequences were inevitable. As lemons came to be seen as a literal lifeline, retailers responded by bumping up lemon prices to hyperinflation-esque levels. Desperate folks were forced to pay, having been convinced that lemons were the only thing that could keep them safe from the plague that had already killed millions of people worldwide.
However, you might be surprised to learn that lemons don't do jack shit to cure the influenza virus. So how did this cure-all come around? Because the good folks at Sunkist wanted to make a buttload of money. When the pandemic began in 1918, the fruit company quickly put out a series of advertisements, disguised as official-looking public health warnings, advising people about what they could do to avoid being plagued. They included steps like avoiding crowds, getting plenty of sleep, and oh right, drinking one or two glasses of hot lemonade. After these ads went out and reached an estimated TWENTY-TWO MILLION PEOPLE, sales of lemons rose by over 80 percent ... which not only made the company that Sunkist a buttload of cash, but helped cement lemons as a staple food in the American diet.
Ordinarily, this is where we'd go hard on calling these guys manipulative sociopaths, but credit where credit is due: at least they didn't hire a doctor who talks about "demon sperm" to scare your grandparents into drinking fish medication.
Old-Timey Potatoes Used to Poison People All the Goddamn Time
As the more green-fingered of you might know, green potatoes aren't a good thing. Potatoes don't follow the eggs and ham style of green being weird but still okay to eat. That color means they're crammed with a nasty toxin called solanine, the same ingredient that gives nightshade its distinctive kick. In small doses, solanine isn't dangerous -- it might give your stomach that weird feeling you get when you eat Arby's, but that's about it. However, in large quantities, solanine poisoning can cause anything from nausea and diarrhea, paralysis, and a rather incurable outbreak of death.
We aren't kidding about that "outbreak" thing, by the way. Before the invention of, um, knowing the basic tenets of the food, it wasn't uncommon for entire groups of people to find themselves at death's door after scarfing down potatoes that forget solanine, were sola'd up to eleven. That includes a group of soldiers in 1899 that left with jaundice and permanent paralysis. Also, the families in 1918 Scotland that shared a bag of potatoes so bad that the resulting illness caused a five-year-old boy to die from a strangulated bowel. Not to mention, at least 380+ North Koreans that fell ill when a countrywide famine in 1952 forced them to eat rotten potatoes. And two school loads of children poisoned, in 1979 and 1983, after the cafeteria staff fed them potatoes that'd been stored in a cupboard for too long.
Fortunately, thanks to the newfangled way we screen potatoes for solanine, modern-day poisonings are extremely rare. Although any potatoes can become lethal if they're stored incorrectly or kept in direct sunlight, so to be the safe side, we recommend never eating a vegetable again.
Canned Olives Caused a Botulism Outbreak That Killed Over a Dozen People
Putting food into cans is easy: you take a can, fill it with food, slap a lid on top and a label on the side, ship it to stores, and watch those fat stacks roll in.
Except, not really. The food also has to be processed and canned in a way that it kills any bacteria present, lest it culture inside the can, and kill some dude that just wanted to eat some pineapple in December. And before the canning industry got its shit together, it used to happen all the time thanks to a (literally) little thing called Clostridium botulinum, which you might recognize as the bacterium which produces the neurotoxin botulism. On its own, botulism is a bastard of a bacterium, but food production? It's the absolute worst because it can't be detected by sight, smell, and taste, and it loves oxygen-free environments ... such as vacuum-packed cans of food.
In 1919, there were three outbreaks of botulism, which left 18 people dead in Ohio, Michigan, and New York. The culprit? Some poorly-processed cans of black olives. And thanks to black olives being considered fancy person food back then, that meant each victim died after attending a banquet or important family meal. So some of these poor bastards spent their last few precious hours listening to their bozo cousin try to sell them an investment in a lemon farm.
Ramen Was a Black Market Food in Post-WW2 Tokyo (And It Was Controlled by the Yakuza)
Thanks to a lifetime spent playing Grand Theft Auto, we're pretty confident we know how organized crime works. It's all drugs and guns, prostitution and protection, counterfeiting and cybercrime, and everything in between. However, in ye olden days, the Yakuza had a very different racket: ramen.
At the end of WWII, Japan was, to put it lightly, a bit of a mess. Hundreds of thousands of people were dead, entire cities were bombed-out hellholes, and production of the country's staple food, rice, had ground to halt following a devastating harvest failure. To combat this shortage, the U.S. began importing food into the country, alongside massive amounts of wheat to make bread.
Only, this distribution system was incredibly slow, so soon enough, black-market food stalls began sprouting up across the country -- particularly in Tokyo. By October 1945, an estimated 45,000 such stalls were serving various foodstuffs to the desperate sea of humanity that lay before them. Sensing an opportunity, the Yakuza started diverting these imports of wheat flour from bread mills to street vendors who would then buy and turn the flour into ramen, which these vendors would then take to their stalls and sell by the bucketload.
It wasn't without risk, though. After the war, it was illegal to buy or sell restaurant foods because it disrupted rationing. As a result, thousands of ramen vendors were arrested until the restrictions on food stalls were lifted in 1950. At the same time, these vendors also had to pay protection money to the Yakuza, to prevent their stalls from, uh, "accidentally" falling down the stairs one day.
As previously mentioned, though, these restrictions were soon lifted in 1950, meaning that vendors didn't have to rely on organized crime anymore. Which is just as well considering all that ramen broth is already doing a good enough job at raising their blood pressure.
Top Image: Piqsels