The Accidental Poisoner

by in View All Posts, October 23rd, 2008

Working in the Food Network’s culinary department tends, as one would expect, to be a delicious pleasure. The range of foods that pass through our kitchens is truly mind-boggling—land crabs, civet coffee, jujube honey, snail roe, and on and on. This is no place for the food-phobic; it takes an omnivore to work around here. And occasionally a strong stomach. Sometimes, a really strong stomach.

Yesterday was such a day. The sort of day, rare but not unknown, that leads one to wonder whether keeping a gastroenterologist on staff might not be a wise investment.

I mean, really. Look at this thing.

The whole sordid story after the jump:

It all began innocently enough, in the elevator, when a casual conversation with our culinary producer Sarah Perlman turned to an unidentifiable foodstuff that one of our freshest new on-air faces, Sunny Anderson, had, out of curiosity, picked up in Chinatown that morning. No one in the kitchen had ever seen the likes of it. Perhaps, as the Network’s culinary researcher, I might be able to help them solve the riddle of Sunny’s quarry?

Since tracking down information about oddball foods is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, I jumped at the challenge. Sara immediately brought me into the kitchen, where we found Sunny and our colleague Santos at a counter, hunched over, transfixed by, this…this thing.

Once again, mostly because if it haunts my dreams, it should haunt yours too — it looked like this:

Sunny and Santos gazed down at one that Santos had smashed with the side of a knife, as if waiting for it to speak. No, I had no idea what it was.

None of which stopped me when Santos broke off a piece and offered me a bite. I brought the severed horn to my mouth and nibbled the meager morsel of white flesh inside. It did indeed taste like coconut; also, I thought, a bit like cantaloupe. The smell was somewhat off-putting, a little, shall we say, excremental; not enough to repulse, just enough to cast doubt. No matter, I was fascinated. I had to share. I rushed a sample over to my colleague Rupa, another connoisseur of the weird and delicious, who received the thing with the same mixture of attraction and repulsion and likewise found the flavor not unpleasant. Rupa readily agreed to assist me in my sleuthwork.

I returned to my desk and busied myself with other things. Ten minutes later Rupa called with some answers. The thing had a name: horned water chestnut, also water caltrop, also Trapa bicornis. The thing also came with some warnings: ‘must not be eaten in its raw state,‘should be boiled for an hour.’ One source mentioned unspecified ‘toxins,’ another ‘contaminated water’ and ‘intestinal parasites’; still another: ‘…known to transmit cysts of a parasitic intestinal fluke to people who shell them with their teeth.’ On the flip side the horned chestnuts had once been used to treat elephantiasis. Cold comfort. My stomach curdled.

Turns out Sunny had gotten her hands on the seeds of a species of aquatic plant native to Africa, Central Europe, and Asia. A close relative of our caltrops seems to have found its way into Italian cuisine, as more than one source mentions a famous risotto made with them. But it is the Chinese who really made caltrops their own: boiling them, frying them, preserving them in honey and sugar. They even grind them into flour for making bread and puddings. In Chinatowns they are often sold as water chestnuts—the two are unrelated and should not be confused—and appear to be associated with the mid-autumn moon festival.

All of which was good and fine but did nothing to block out the images of 9 foot long worms taking up residence in my lower GI tract. I ran back to the kitchen to forestall any further consumption of these satanic chestnuts. My news got a surprisingly mixed reception. Sunny more or less brushed it off; she’d eaten far worse and lived to tell. Sarah was speechless. And Santos scratched his hands compulsively, while complaining of a sudden rash. I was feeling pretty queazed out myself. What if I’d poisoned Rupa? What if we were all stricken? What if Sunny had to suspend production? What if I had to waste my remaining vacation time nursing a tummy ache!? I picked up one of the horned beasts and took a close look. It looked back. I pocketed it, figuring: worst case scenario the CDC would want to have a look.

Rupa, Santos, and I decided the best course of action was a purifying shot of high-proof whiskey. For now, it seems to have been quite effective. And we’re giving thanks for every day of digestive health. Stay tuned.

Jonathan Milder, Research Librarian

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