Death in the Pot

The Impact of Food Poisoning on History
by Morton Satin

I did not like this book. Although I went through it quickly, I found it unsatisfying in many ways. First, I couldn’t get past all the petty errors: misspellings, badly phrased sentences, and confusing non-sequiturs. At one point, the author discusses the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He states that it begin in 431 BCE, and lasted 27 years. On the next page we are told that Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. Uh, right, he wrote the history just as the war was starting. Sure, it’s a stupid little mistake, but when a book is full of such stupid little mistakes, I worry about the stupid little mistakes that I didn’t notice and may have been misled by.

Another off-putting oddity was the author’s penchant for providing his own drawings and prominently signing them. Is he trying to show off his artistic skills? I don’t know. It’s… odd.

The author certainly knows a great deal about the biology of food poisoning, but his grasp of history is weaker. It’s obvious that he researched each of his cases thoroughly, but his discussions of the historical context of various incidents of food poisoning lacks perspective; they read like they’re taken out of a history book. OK, we can’t expect a historian to know much about food poisoning biology, and we can’t expect a food poisoning expert to know much about history – but I still wish that he’d taken more time. I get the same impression about almost everything he discusses: that he didn’t take much time researching the material. The book has a slapped-together feel to it.

Nevertheless, I’ll note that the book is an easy read and interesting; I just wish I could have more confidence in its contents.