Canning Food and Botulism

On Wednesday, October 3rd, I attended a Food Safety Talk podcast recording at the recommendation of Dr. McCoy. While I was there, the speakers answered a question about how long imperishable food can last and when we should be worried about it. This reminded me of Chapter 9 in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season where Alabaster gets poisoned by badly canned food and I was curious as to how accurate Jemisin’s description of faulty canning practices could be. Turns out, she likely did some research.

When Alabaster is briefly paralyzed after eating some bad food Syenite recalls, “When she was a grit, she did kitchen duty sometimes, and every once in a while they would open a jar of fruit or vegetables that had gone bad. The funky ones, those that had cracked or come partially open, were so foul-smelling that the cooks would have to open windows and set some grits on fanning duty to get the stench out. But far worse, Syen had learned, were the jars that didn’t crack. The stuff inside them looked fine; opened, it didn’t smell bad. the only warning of danger was a little buckling of the metal lid” (Jemisin, 169). As a grit, Syenite learns that a faulty canning job can turn the contents of a jar into poison.

 

I decided to look it up. The CDC says that faulty canning techniques can cause botulism, “A rare but potentially deadly illness caused by a poison most commonly produced by a germ called clostridium botulinum.” Additionally, the CDC says that botulism “can affect your nerves, paralyze you, and even cause death.” Other symptoms of botulism include double and/or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, Difficulty swallowing, a thick-feeling tongue, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Alabaster certainly experienced, what I would say is, the worst of the symptoms.

 

When reading this passage of The Fifth Season, I didn’t originally wonder how accurate the occasion was, nor did I know about botulism in the first place. Learning about how these characters, that at times may seem far away, are affected by something that can also affect my everyday life was interesting and important to me.

 

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