5 Utterly Innocent Foods That Terrified Our Ancestors

You can’t die from eating cucumbers, but people thought you could
5 Utterly Innocent Foods That Terrified Our Ancestors

When you set out food, there’s always the risk that someone will be vegan or religious or gluten-free and can’t eat the stuff. A veggie platter, however, is safe. The following foods are pretty much the least controversial menu items imaginable. You can even grow these five items yourself, and then you can brag about how much you trust this wholesome produce. And yet, once upon a time, every one of these foods scared the shit out of people. 


The tomato first came to Europe in the 16th century. That means tomato sauce has been a part of Italian cuisine for centuries but not a part of Italian cuisine for millennia. And once Europeans got their first taste, it took them a while to eat the stuff regularly, thanks to the rumor that tomatoes were poisonous.

People back then knew that other red berries were sometimes poisonous, so they had reason to mistrust this one. An Italian herbalist early on categorized the tomato as a type of nightshade, and nightshade is famously poisonous. In England, a barber named John Gerard wrote a widely read book that called tomatoes poisonous. He might have been confused because the leaves of the tomato plant are bitter, and anyway, he plagiarized most of that book


Deniz Altindas

He was also a surgeon, but that just makes his conduct even more shameful.

Another reason people suspected tomatoes were poisonous is that some of those who ate them really did get poisoned. These were aristocrats, who ate them off pewter plates. These plates had lots of lead, and the acid in the tomatoes sucked the lead out into a soluble form. Hey, turns out some foods really can “draw out the toxins.”


Corn is another New World food that perplexed Europe. Or, maybe we should call it “maize.” Originally “corn” was a word for whatever grain a locality happened to use. The English called wheat “corn,” while the Scottish called oats “corn.” Then along came maize, which was referred to as “Indian corn” for a bit, before people figured that would be the one and only corn going forward. 

It took them a while to decide that. Spaniards had a belief that if they ate maize, it could weaken them, making them like indigenous people themselves. 


Virgil Cayasa

Damn immigrants, refusing to assimilate.

Though their reasoning was stupid, corn actually could — and did — weaken many Europeans in the years that followed. These were people who filled their entire diet with corn and therefore suffered from niacin deficiency, a disease known as pellagra. Corn contains plenty of niacin, if you treat the food with alkali to make the stuff suitable for eating, but new chefs forgot this crucial step. Maybe should have asked around first before trying it themselves because those indigenous people in the Americas had been alkali-treating their corn for at least 2,000 years


Europeans weren’t afraid potatoes were poisonous when they first got their hands on this particular New World import. That’s even though every part of the potato plant other than the tuber (which is the part we eat) is extremely poisonous, and even the tuber can get poisonous if stored improperly. No, they knew what part of the plant to eat, and they didn’t think it was poisonous. They thought it was infectious

The potato looked to some Europeans like the hands of a leper. It therefore seemed only logical that eating potatoes was how people can become infected with leprosy.


Engin Akyurt

We don’t see it ourselves, but maybe these ones are anomalously pretty.

According to one story, King Frederick the Great of Prussia broke past this aversion through reverse psychology. He declared potatoes a royal crop that no peasant must farm, so peasants became tempted and sneaked into (conveniently poorly guarded) royal gardens to steal potatoes for their own fields. That story likely isn’t true. What he did do was launch a wide propaganda campaign praising the potato. He also launched a campaign saying people should drink beer instead of coffee, so this was a man subjects would follow into battle. 


What is it about cucumbers that used to disgust people in England? Was it the cucumber’s phallic shape? Was is the fact that it looks like a dick? Or maybe it was how it’s oblong, much like how penises are. Whatever the reason, many considered it unsuitable for eating. It was dubbed the “cowcumber” (because it was only good for feeding to cows). One note from 1663 claimed that a man named Newhouse was “dead of eating cowcumbers,” in defiance of all we know about the cowcumber’s effects.

Mockup Graphics

Maybe they were saying he died from excessive fellatio.

Cucumbers turned around in popularity thanks to Brits stationed in India, who ate cucumber sandwiches to keep cool. Queen Victora then started eating them, and if they were good enough for her, they were good enough for everyone. People who grew their own even invested in cucumber straighteners. Grow your cucumber in one of these glass devices, and this would ensure it formed properly instead of getting twisted or bendy. 

Garden Museum

They didn’t have proper condoms yet, but they had this.

Okay, we understand now. People were rejecting early cucumbers because they thought those ones weren’t shaped enough like dicks. 


Let’s now jump much further back in time, to Ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C. People followed the advice of Pythagoras, who addition to talking about triangles, had a thing or two to say about diet eat. People should be vegetarian, he said. And they should not eat beans, which is a prohibition not followed by any branch of vegetarianism that we know of. 

Scholars have debated the reasoning behind this rule of the cult of Pythagoras. It might have been a straightforward instruction for good health, say some. He may have been suffered from favism, a common enzyme deficiency that renders some people anemic and wheezing when they eat beans. But surely not everyone around him had favism, and he can’t have assumed beans hurt everyone, based on what he saw. 

The cult followed math but also mysticism, so we have to consider beans’ supernatural influence. Beans are “like the gates of Hades,” wrote Aristotle, who’s one of our main sources on Pythagoras. The Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro wrote that beans contain the souls of the dead. 

Tijana Drndarski

Bean-eaters are cannibals.

The strongest theory may involve the Pythagoreans who practiced divination. The bean taboo, according to experts, might have been because the Pythagorean seer was very sensitive to “small physical disturbances.” That’s the problem with beans, you see. Farts keep you from contacting ghosts. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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