Culinary Curiosities: Role of Food Tasters Throughout History
Ever wonder about the leftovers you’re about to have? How long has that pizza been in there? When did you make that chicken and rice? If only someone was willing to try it for you and find out if the pepperoni still has its pep, or if the chicken and rice is no longer nice. Once upon a time, the elite relied on food tasters to verify the quality of their food. And it was a matter of life and death.
A food taster to the Roman General Mark Antony learned this the hard way. While Antony was passionate about Cleopatra, he was also wary of her. Legend says that the Queen of Egypt proved her love for—and power over—her Roman lover by way of a garland made of poisoned flowers. During a banquet, she asked him to take one of the flowers she wore, place it in his goblet and drink to her honor. As he prepared to do so, Cleopatra ordered his cupbearer to sip the wine first. As the taster collapsed and died, the Queen assured Mark Antony that if she wanted to kill him she surely would, but since she had saved him, he could trust her.
Cleopatra spared Mark Antony, but Emperor Claudius was not so lucky. Claudius died in 54 A.D., possibly as a result of eating poisoned mushrooms. His food taster, or praegustator, as the Romans called them, named Halotus, was a suspect. But many assumed that Claudius’ wife, Agrippina the Younger, was behind the murder because she wanted her son Nero to rule. Nero did succeed Claudius as emperor. And, shortly after taking the throne, Claudius’ 13-year-old son, Britannicus also died of poisoning. Some speculated that Britannicus succumbed after insisting cold water be added to his hot drink after his cupbearer had sampled it. The water, laced with poison, eliminated him as a rival to Nero.
Pope Boniface VIII (who died in 1303, but not from poison) had a lot of enemies, including several cardinals and King Phillip IV of France. Boniface feared poison. All beverages had to be opened and poured under his watchful eye. His tableware was made of solid gold and his chef used a utensil called an assazum (possibly from the word assay, “to try”) to test his food. He had several assazum, some in the shape of a unicorn horn or a forked serpent’s tongue. It was believed these “magic knives” would indicate if poison were present.
During the Renaissance, with murderous families like the Borgias and the Medicis using poison against their enemies, having a food taster made good sense. “To taste the cup of the Borgias” was shorthand for a quick death. The need to keep food safe became an important part of daily life for powerful men. It became so routine that a piece of furniture, the credenza, takes its name from credence tests applied to food. Once a dish had undergone a “trial of assay” (basically a taste test), it was placed on a credence table where it was guarded to make sure no one touched it. According to Eleanor Herman, in her book, The Royal Art of Poisoning (2018), servants didn’t just taste food for their masters: they would kiss napkins, tablecloths and even seat cushion to ensure a royal patron’s safety.
Surprisingly, food tasters aren’t a thing of the distant past. During World War II, Adolf Hitler had a team of 15 young women, including 24-year-old Margot Wölk, as food tasters. When Hitler was at The Wolf’s Lair, his Eastern front military headquarters in present day Poland, Wölk and the others sampled a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, but no meat. The fürher was a vegetarian. Wölk survived the war, but the other food tasters were killed by advancing Soviet soldiers.
Russian leader Joseph Stalin also had a food taster nicknamed “the Rabbit,” real name Sasha Egnatashvili, who worked with his chef. As Stalin became more suspicious of his inner circle, he executed the wives of several of his closest aides, including Egnatashvili’s wife. But “the Rabbit” remained as his taster.
Even today it’s rumored that Vladimir Putin employs a food taster. And he’s not the only one: It’s not generally acknowledged, but every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan has had a food taster. To be fair, the duties probably fall under the purview of staff members such as the secret service and the White House chef who verify the provenance and quality of the president’s food. And do they sample the commander in chief’s entrée? Well, surely no chef worth his or her salt sends out a dish without tasting it first.