Really, REALLY Bad Acid

Now I know there are certain types of readers out there — mostly musicians — who rather enjoy the thought of a dose of LSD with their morning toast. But let’s be clear here: ergot-derived lysergic acid is a far cry from the synthesized, purified LSD that Jimi Hendrix sprinkled on his corn flakes. What we’re talking about is an unrefined chemical, one that is mixed with a variety of other toxins, the cumulative effect of which is a disease known as ergotism.

Ergotism comes in two types. There’s convulsive ergotism, a nervous disorder in which sufferers can be subjected to anything from muscle spasms and hallucinations to violent contortions, trembling, shaking, vomiting, mania and psychosis. However ergot can also cause constriction of the blood vessels which leads to a second condition known as gangrenous ergotism. In this, blood flow is cut off to the extremities, causing infections, hideous burning sensations and gangrene (with all its associated losses of fingers, toes and limbs). Not the way even the most committed stoner would want to spend his weekend.

Did these kinds of symptoms occur every time pre-industrial peoples consumed ergot? Certainly not. Had they, someone somewhere would have made the connection, and well before 1850. The insidious thing about ergotism, you see, is that it only occasionally strikes with any real ferocity: during a particularly wet spring, for instance, when rye flowers stay open longer. Or after an especially bad wheat year, when people put a higher proportion of rye in their flour mix. In a worst-case scenario it would be a combination of both. Just such a year killed an estimated 40,000 people in southern France in 944 A.D.. Though even that is small potatoes when you consider that some historians blame mild ergotism for softening up the European immune system in advance of the Bubonic Plague, which as you may recall did a number on Europe to the tune of two-thirds of its population. That is what you call one seriously bad trip.

4 thoughts on “Really, REALLY Bad Acid”

  1. You make some really good points about ergot poisoning, Joe.

    I’m active on a psychedelic mushroom message board, with a large chemistry section (It’s not THAT bad, there are a lot of nice, normal people there) but it seems like every few months some idiot wants to brew tea out of ergot-infected rye.

    More people need to understand that ergotamine just happened to be a convenient starting point for a talented chemist 50 years ago, and it’s not something you want to eat.

    1. Amen, Defiance, and welcome to the site. I appreciate the perspective of someone with your level of expertise. I think we can all agree that if you’re going to indulge in psychotropic substances, you want to do it as safely as you possibly can. For some people there may be historical caché in trying something like ergot, but the record doesn’t lie. That stuff maims and kills. Thanks very much for weighing in on this.

      – Joe

  2. My goodness! I thought this was a Safe For Work pastry blog! But just in the last few days, I’ve seen references to inadequately-sized “sausages,” flatulence, and now this, which is something I’d expect to have found on the bulletin board of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic during the Summer of Love. Joe, get your mind out of the gutter, and get back to writing about PRETTY things. You know what I mean: elegant gateaux, fluffy croissants, exquisite petit fours. Things that aren’t, as the writer said, “of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.”

    1. All I can say, reader Lee, is that pastry is not all about happy-making. It’s about holding up a mirror to our ourselves and our society at large and taking a good hard look at what we see there. Sometimes we may not like what’s in that mirror, but is that the fault of the medium? Hardly. My hope is that this series and others like it will ultimately lead to an open, honest and soul-searching dialogue about taboo subjects like rye — and small sausages — which have for too long been swept under the cultural carpet. Though uncomfortable, it will ultimately benefit us all.

      Thank you for your comment.

      – Joe

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