I went to my local diner, and they served me a glass of ice water—with a dead mosquito in it. I asked the manager what he planned to do about it. He said he’d give me a “free glass of water.” What should I have done?
—PAUL IN SACRAMENTO
That's gross. Hit that diner with a strongly worded Yelp review!
But listen: You should also be thankful that buggy water is a rare occurrence in modern dining. In the past, your average meal was so disgusting and unhygienic that just reading about it would make you reach for a bottle of Doc Fletcher’s Genuine Pink Bismuth Nostrum With Extra Opium.
At least your meal was worm-free. Egyptian mummies’ stomachs have been found to contain a delicious blend of tapeworms, liver flukes, whipworms, guinea worms, and roundworms, according to Morton Satin’s book Death in the Pot. For centuries, things didn’t get better. British diarist Samuel Pepys recorded this 1662 meal: “My stomach was turned when my sturgeon came to table, upon which I saw very many little worms creeping.”
Even the cosmetically clean food wasn’t safe. Poisonous (but sweet-tasting) lead found its way into all sorts of treats, as a kind of precursor to high fructose corn syrup. In 19th-century England, red peppers were painted with shiny red lead to make them more appetizing. British country inns ground their salad greens with a giant ball of lead, giving diners an unhealthy dose of metal shavings, according to Swindled, a survey of bad food by Bee Wilson.
Baked goods were no better. Reformers accused bakers in 17th-century England of diluting their breads with ash and bones (hence the threats by the salivating giant in Jack and the Beanstalk to make his bread with “the blood of an Englishman”). These rumors were mostly unfounded, but bakers did dilute bread with the bleaching agent alum, which has since turned out to be toxic in large quantities. Where’d they get the alum? From the urine that paupers sold to manufacturers, writes Wilson in Swindled.
Impurities aside, humans have also voluntarily shoved a baffling variety of creatures into their mouths over the years. The first known cookbook—dating to fourth-century Rome—contained recipes for flamingo tongues and calfbrain pudding. And most alarming of all, 21st-century Americans ate something called the Ballpark hot dog, which contained … well, I can’t even bring myself to type it.
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