Sandra Benedetto: Killer Bread

It’s not what you think. It’s not fresh-from-the-oven focaccia at your favorite neighborhood trattoria. It’s not a recipe you found on Pinterest that promises to revolutionize your relationship with carbs. It’s bread that kills. Or so goes one explanation for the disturbing events of August 1951 that occurred in a small French town called Pont-Saint-Esprit.

Over a two-day period, anywhere from about 250 to 500 Spiripontains went crazy, complètement fou. People of all ages hallucinated, jumped off rooftops, ran through the streets naked, or tried to drown themselves in the Rhône river. One man later reported that he had the sensation of shrinking. Several people died and many more were put in asylums. The prevailing theory is that the afflicted had consumed rye bread contaminated with a poisonous ergot fungus. According to Wikipedia, ergot poisoning is a proposed explanation of bewitchment and may have played a role in the Salem Witch Trials. Sounds plausible: eat lunch, become a bit hysterical when you see snakes emerging from your abdomen, jump out a window. Case closed? Not so fast.

There were enough holes in the ham-and-swiss-on-rye theory that some began to believe that the CIA had poisoned the townspeople. Shocking as it may be to think that our very own United States government engaged in covert and ethically questionable activities, there is some evidence to suggest that during the Cold War the CIA experimented with LSD on unwitting participants in its quest for mind-control substances. Evidently, the CIA worked closely with a Swiss chemical company not far from Pont-Saint-Esprit that synthesized LSD. An employee turned informant would later say that the ‘Pont-Saint-Esprit secret’ was that it wasn’t the bread at all, but a man-made compound that made people go mad.

My aim here is not to sway you toward one theory or the other; in fact, I’m not convinced that the whole truth lies in toxic grains or a CIA conspiracy. Let’s examine some other possibilities before we make up our minds. Forthwith, a short list of lesser known but no less intriguing hypotheses:

#5. Otherworldly forces working alone or in tandem, such as God, Satan, aliens or disgruntled Roman spirits (‘This French unification thing can’t last . . . f@#$ing Clovis!’). I think you’ll agree that this is possible but very difficult to prove.
#4. A rival of Jacqueline Bouvier, wanting to stir up bad press around the future first lady’s ancestral town in hopes of stealing away the affections of one Jack Kennedy. While the Bouvier family did have roots in Pont-Saint-Esprit, there is no evidence pointing toward a psychopathic romantic rival that had that kind of access to lethal toxins.
#3. Hypnosis gone awry. Hypnosis seems to be a comforting go-to for inexplicable behaviors, and why not? However, I would feel better about this one if someone had come forward with a doctor’s name, patient registry, or any evidence at all that hypnosis works.
#2. Hypnosis gone according to evil doctor’s plan. See #3.

This brings us to #1. As previously stated, I don’t have an agenda, but you won’t be able to deny that this final theory is compelling. After the supposed ergot poisoning, bread sales were way down in the region. Who wants to stop off at the bakery if there’s a chance that by dinnertime you’ll feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man? That raises the question: who would benefit most from a bread boycott? Exactement, beef and dairy farmers!

Yes, I’m suggesting that grain’s competitors orchestrated this horrifying PR hit in order to gain more ground in the agricultural sector. Nowadays the industry can simply launch a cheeky Got Milk? campaign, but back then it took some Machiavellian tactics to get the world’s attention, regrettably. I would be surprised if the meat and milk guys stopped at that one malicious scheme. Pont-Saint-Esprit may have just been the launching of a decades-long international effort to take down bread by infiltrating school lunch planning committees, government agencies, Hollywood . . . I suppose they would be thrilled to know that the seeds of their labor have borne fruit and that the gluten free movement is thriving (not to mention the Paleo diet)! All you have to do is Google ‘gluten free’ to see that their actions have had long-term cultural ramifications. Oh, and click on some links while you’re at it, there are some killer recipes out there.


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