Sometimes nature is easy to figure out. Take these mushrooms, for example. Red means run, son.
Ever wonder how early humans determined which foods were poisonous and which ones were edible? I have. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Amazon basin, and the tribe I worked with there ate a very particular kind of cassava root. I mean, they ate some form of this root with everything. They ate cassava bread spread with cassava poi, they ate fried cassava bits with salt like popcorn, they processed cassava into a kind of granola to have with fruit for breakfast... They even had a pretty appalling method by which they fermented the stuff to make an alcoholic beverage which, while foul-tasting and disgusting, will send you for quite a loop, I have to admit.
My point is this: While there are lots of varieties of "sweet" cassava that are non-toxic, this particular sort of cassava that I'm talking about is what's called a "bitter" cassava - which means that it's highly poisonous in its raw state. Like, touch-the-raw-root-lick-your-fingers-and-die poisonous. However, there is a very long and complicated process by which the root can be cured that renders it edible. This process involves submerging the root under water for a few weeks, boiling it over a fire for a certain amount of time, drying it out for several days, mashing it up with a mortar and pestle, etc. etc. The method is exacting and specific, and if at any time in the process someone decides to cut a corner or two, the consequences could be deadly.
So what I’m wondering is, how did these tribesmen ever figure out how to process this root to begin with? I mean, how did that go, exactly?
Tribesman #1: Joe ate some of that root over there last month. Killed him pretty dead.
Tribesman #2: Really? Dead, huh? Well, maybe he should have tried to soak it in the river for a week before he ate it. I doubt it would have killed him if he’d have done that.
T1: No, Tim tried that a couple of weeks ago. He wound up just as dead as Joe.
T2: Really? Huh. That is so hard to believe... Oh, you know what? He should have soaked it for a week, then boiled it for sixteen hours. That’s where he went wrong.
T1: No, no... Remember Alan? He tried soaking first, then boiling. I thought it was a sure thing, too, but...
T2: Alan tried soaking then boiling, and he still croaked? Wow. That’s a head-scratcher... I mean, what comes after soaking then boiling? I don’t know... Maybe... maybe...
T1: I’ve got it!
T1: We’ll mash it.
T2: We’ll mash it! Yes! Of course! Genius! Soak, boil, then mash! That’s bound to work, don’t you think?
T1: I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.