The Food Taster

I’ve been working my way through Peter Elbling’s 2003 novel The Food Taster, for about a year. It’s sorta always there but I just can’t get that excited about the main character, Ugo, and his struggle to survive as he tastes countless dishes to protect a much loathed but important 16th Century Italian Duke (Federico). 

Amy has written while at this point in history simply having food was a luxury, the formerly starving peasant, Ugo, learns that he can no longer enjoy his food. Although now an expert at identifying ingredients and seasonings (right up there with today’s top food pornographers) he is constantly afraid of being struck by a mystical potion.  His backwards, yet perhaps scientifically accurate, strategy is to slowly expose himself to all sorts of potions and poisons to build up (immuno) resistance should he actually be struck.

The N.Y. Times reported in 2006 that Saddam Hussein once sentenced his elder son, Uday, to be executed after he beat Mr. Hussein’s food taster to death in front of scores of horrified party guests, but later rescinded the order.

In Medieval times men of power had tasters who valiantly sampled their food in case an enemy tried to poison them.  This practice was built on a myth that survives today – if you get food poisoning, it’s from the last thing you ate, and the symptoms will commence rather immediately. 

Last week, reports surfaced that U.S. President Obama had his own food taster present to sample dinner in a French restaurant. Not so, said Presidential spokesthingy Robert Gibbs, but a Secret Service dude may have been watching things.

I hope so. Most people, including chefs, know nothing about food safety. A couple of years ago, Amy and I had the privilege of an after-hours chat with some FDA-types who spoke of the precautions they would take when preparing safe salmon for Laura Bush and any other meal fit for a President. They had thermometers. And knew how to use them.