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Use of the Barracuda as Food and Poisoning Resulting Therefrom

fish, taste, flesh, poisonous and eat

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There is a long-standing prejudice against the use of Sphyrcena as food. Salviani, the Roman physician and student of fishes, says in his book published at Rome in 1554, that "At Rome they are justly held to be common or cheap fish, nor do they have any proper fashion or mode of rendering them savory." Cuvier and Valenciennes, in refer ring to Salviani's statement, say that other writers, presumably con temporary, accord it a comparison with the haddock, everywhere esteemed as food; and that still others say that its flesh is light, friable, and of good flavor. Rondelet (1558) likewise testifies that its flesh is white and pleasant to the taste.

With regard to the use of the West Indian barracuda as food, there is likewise a widespread and long-standing prejudice based on centu ries-old allegations of its poisonous qualities. This is such an interest ing and important point that it will be taken up in detail and an effort made to get at the truth and its explanation. This belief, so far as the writer knows, was first noted by Du Tertre. He writes as early as 1667 that the flesh is like that of the pike, but dangerous to eat since it is sometimes poisonous. He then tells us that to determine whether it is hurtful it is necessary to examine the teeth and liver. If the for mer are white and the liver sweet-tasting, it may be eaten with impu nity; but if the teeth are black or the liver bitter or harsh, it "ought no more be eaten than arsenic. " As an explanation of the origin of the poison, he says that in the West Indies in his day it was thought to be due to the fact that the fish eats the fruits of the very poisonous man chineel tree which have fallen in the water. That this explanation has persisted we will see later. And since this explanation of the poisonous quality of the flesh of the barracuda is repeatedly offered, the following interesting corroboratory note seems worth giving.

Dampier (1729) in his first voyage to Campeachy landed on the Isle of Pines on the south side of Cuba near the west end. Among the animals of which he makes mention are large land crabs. Of their feeding he says: "The Manchaniel Fruit, which neither Bird nor Beast will taste, is greedily devoured by them, without doing them any harm. Yet these very crabs that feed on Manchaniel, are venomous both to Man and Beast that feeds on them, though the others are very good Meat." There is now to be quoted an account which, because no certain fish is named, may seem of doubtful relevancy, but which, as the sequel will show, is of direct value to the matter in hand, and in all proba bility relates to the very fish under consideration. In the Philosophi cal Transactions of the Royal Society for 1675 there is published an extract from a letter of one Mr. "J. L." to the publisher concerning poisonous fish in the Bahamas. It reads as follows: "The Fish that are here, are many of them poysonous, bringing a great pain in their joynts who eat them, which continues for some short time, and at last with two or three days itching the pain is rubbed off. Those of the same species, size, shapes, colour, and taste are one of them poyson, the other not in the least hurtful. And those that are, are so only to some of the com pany. The distemper to Men never, that we hear of, proves mortal. Doggs

and Cats sometimes eat their last. In men who have once had the disease, upon the first eating of the fish, though it be those that are wholesome, the poisonous ferment in their body is revived thereby, and their pain increased." There is another account, nearly 200 years later, from the pen of the English surgeon, Morton (1868). Commenting on the great variety of fish caught at Nassau, he adds : " Some of these fish, at certain times of the year, are very unwholesome, and, when eaten, give rise to severe purgings, vomiting, and cramps. During our stay, four men belonging to a coasting vessel were poisoned, one of whom died from eating part of a large barracouta, which they had caught. This fish, when large, is said to be very unsafe food, and great risk is run in eating it. The one which gave rise to fatal results in this instance, was upwards of five feet in length." Sir Hans Sloane (1707), in volume n of his "Natural History of Jamaica," says of the barracuda: "According to its feeding on venemous or non-venemous Food, 'tis whole some or poysonous to those who eat it; 'tis also noxious in some Seasons of the Year, and in some Places, and innocent in others, I suppose according to its Nourishment, by which now and then, it acquires so much poison as to kill immediately." However, Dr. Patrick Browne (1756) says, of the two species which he found in Jamaican waters, that "they are both firm and palatable fishes, much esteemed by many people." Dampier (1729), in his "Second Voyage to Campeachy," thus speaks of the edibility of the barracuda: "They are firm well-tasted Fish; but 'tis dangerous eating them, for some Men have been poisoned with them. Divers Persons are of the Opinion that these Creatures are poysonous in some Places only, and that but at some Times of the Year. I know that in many parts of the West-Indies, some have been injured by eating them, and that at different Seasons of the Year; therefore Seamen commonly taste the Liver before they venture any further; and if that has a biting Taste like Pepper, they esteem the Fish unwholesome, but if not they eat it: and yet I found even this Rule to fail too. I judge the Head and the Parts near it, to be chiefly venomous." Labat (1742) discourses at length upon the edibility of the barra cuda, whose flesh he says is white, firm, rather oily, and almost of the same taste as that of the pike, but at times is poisonous. He offers a very interesting explanation : "As it is extremely voracious, it eats greedily everything which it finds within and on the water, it happens very often that it encounters Galeres [sea-nettles, medusa3, "Portuguese Men of War"] or the fruit of the man chineel, both of which are very violent and caustic poisons. The Becune does not die because it has eaten them, but its flesh contracts the poison and causes death in those who eat it just as if they had eaten the dangerous fruit or the Galeres." To tell whether the flesh is good or dangerous, Labat would inspect the teeth. If they are black it is dangerous; if some are white and some black, then taste the liver. If it is bitter, reject the fish.

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