Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Food Made from Poison

The Food Made From Poison
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Everyland magazine, March 1917. Digitized by Doug Frizzle February 2012.

THAT sounds funny, does it not? Yet, nearly every reader of Everyland has eaten this food, for it is tapioca. It is no exaggeration to say that tapioca is made from poison, for it is prepared from the manioc plant which, in its raw state, is a deadly poison.
The manioc plant grows in tropical America and although so poisonous, yet it is one of the most useful of plants, for it furnishes a meal known as cassava, a superior quality of starch, tapioca, and a preservative for meats and other foods. The process by which the poisonous root is transformed to a nutritive food is very interesting. It was known to the Indians for centuries before white men first landed on the shores of the New World.
How the Indians discovered that the poisonous roots could be made into food is a mystery. Probably it was by accident. Certainly it could not have been by experiment, for the person who experimented would have been pretty sure to have died before he carried his investigations very far.
The manioc plant is a tall bush with hand-shaped leaves and a thick, fleshy root, and in the form of cassava it is the principal food of the South American Indians and of many white people and thousands of black people besides. Moreover, it is so valuable that it has been introduced to tropical countries all over the world, and is cultivated very largely in Africa and other places.
When an Indian wants to plant a cassava field, he merely selects a piece of land in the forest, chops down the big trees, and sets fire to the branches. This burns away the weeds and brush, and leaves the big stumps and fallen trees blackened and half-burned and still scattered about in confusion. But this doesn't trouble the Indian. Without bothering to clear away the litter, he digs holes here and there among the stumps and tree trunks and plants the slips of the manioc plants. Of course, such a place doesn't look like a farm or a field as we know such places, but it serves the Indian's purposes, for the manioc thrives with very little care, and after the soil is exhausted or when the weeds and brush spring up again, the Indian moves to a new spot and clears another "field."
The men clear the forest and plant the manioc, but the women do all the rest of the work and gather and prepare the roots. It may seem at first as if this were unfair, but in reality the task of clearing the forest is tremendous, for several hundred giant trees must be felled by hand, and I think when the man has finished his work he has really done his share.
But to return to the preparation of the poisonous roots. When a woman wants bread, she goes to the cassava field, and, searching about until she finds some manioc plants whose leaves are dry and yellow, she digs up the roots. These she packs in an open-work basket, places the basket on her back, supported by a band of bark around her forehead, and thus carries the heavy load to her home, or benab.
The roots are washed and pared and are then grated on a slab of wood into which tiny, sharp bits of stone are fastened by means of gum and wax. Often, nowadays, a piece of tin, punched full of holes like a giant nutmeg grater, is used, but the Indians prefer the wooden and stone graters when they can be obtained. However, as these are made only by one or two tribes and are very valuable, few Indians can afford them.
After the roots have been grated, the wet, pasty mass is packed into a queer wicker-work tube known as a metapee. The metapee is very cleverly made, so that when the two ends are pressed together its diameter is greatly increased, while, if the ends are pulled apart, the metapee becomes very slender.
While the grated manioc roots are being placed within it, the metapee is pressed down until it is short and stout. Then, when it is packed full, one end is hooked over a peg on a beam and a stout stick is thrust through a loop at the other end. Then a jug or a calabash is placed underneath it and one or two Indian women seat themselves upon the pole. Their weight pulls the metapee out and, as it contracts, the pressure squeezes the juice from the grated manioc.
The juice runs down into the jug and is saved, for, although the juice is the poisonous part of the roots, it is very useful, as you will see.
After all the juice has been squeezed from the roots, the metapee is taken down and, when the two ends are pressed together, the manioc is easily removed. When taken from the metapee, the cassava, as it is called, is in the form of hard, white cylinders. These are placed in mortars and are broken up with a wooden pestle, or are pounded with a club, and the coarse meal is then sifted through a square basket-work sieve.
The cassava meal is then mixed with a little water and is spread, in large, thin cakes upon a piece of iron or a flat stone over a fire, to bake. As soon as it is thoroughly cooked or dried, it is ready to eat, for the poison of the manioc is prussic acid and any which might remain in the meal after the manioc has been squeezed in the metapee, is driven off by the heat of baking.
The cassava cakes, or "cassava bread", are finally dried in the sun and are packed away in great piles for future use. They are eaten like bread, or are dipped in gravy, sauce, or honey, or they may be pounded up and used as flour, either raw or boiled, like rice. But the favorite way of eating it is with pepper-pot.
To make the pepper-pot, the Indians use the poisonous juice which has been squeezed from the meal in the metapee. This juice is deadly poison, but by being boiled until it becomes a thick, dark syrup, the poison is driven off. This is known as cassareep and is a wonderful preservative. Into the jug of cassareep are thrown red peppers, vegetables, meat, fish, and any other odds and ends of food. By boiling the mixture from time to time, the pepper-pot keeps forever, and every Indian house always has a big jar of pepper-pot standing ready for use.
It is a very pleasant-tasting dish when well made, although rather hot. But if you eat pepper-pot with the Indians, you must be prepared to find surprising things in it, such as monkeys' hands and birds' heads and feet, or even the scaly tails of Iguana lizards or big grubs and caterpillars, for the Indians never waste anything that can be eaten.
It is from the cassava meal that tapioca is made. The meal is boiled in water until it has dissolved, and then sprinkled upon a heated surface which hardens the jelly-like substance into the little, rounded, semi-transparent lumps that you see in your tapioca pudding. The next time you eat that kind of pudding, remember that it is made from poison. You won't be afraid of it on that account, for you will also remember how the Indians have squeezed out the poisonous juice and baked the meal to make it safe for you to eat.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.