Musty corn and the dread scourge pellagra

Posted by | June 8, 2012

‘Musty’ is one of those old-fashioned words you don’t hear used much anymore. You might on occasion refer to a damp basement that way, and that’s about it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the word struck fear in the hearts of mountain folk.

One of the great comforts of jokes is that they help us live with life’s terrors. Defang a fear with laughter, as it were. My grandmother Pauline Winifred Tabler, who was born in 1901, told us kids a story involving mustiness which she thought uproariously funny, but which made our eyes roll every time she told it again. She knew something about mustiness that we’d never have to experience, however.

Pauline loved to bake cakes, did so frequently from scratch, and was quite proud of her culinary ability. One fine summer morning her friend Hattie Rakestraw dropped by when Pauline had just finished baking. They got to chatting over a cup of coffee while the German chocolate cake cooled on the open windowsill. Finally they cut a few slices to try. Hattie, an inveterate trickster, stopped chewing mid-forkful and looked Pauline dead in the eye. “Pauline,” she said slowly, “this cake is musty!” She carefully set the plate down and stepped back.

corn varietiesPauline panicked. “How could that possibly be?? Hattie, I swear to you I was just to town the other day to get all the ingredients fresh.”

Hattie was known to gossip, and the last thing Pauline needed was to be the local pariah, the hostess who poisoned her guests.

“You know that cake couldn’t possibly have mold—you saw yourself it came straight out of the oven!” She was very near tears.

Hattie struck a long theatrical pause.

After watching her mark squirm sufficiently, she swooped back to table edge, grabbed the fork and pronounced “I MUST have another piece.” And they both broke down laughing in relief.

When Pauline and Hattie were both growing up, musty corn (and any food containing contaminated corn products) was thought to be the cause of the life-threatening disease pellagra, a condition that we understand today results from a lack of niacin. Mountaineers of that era noticed that it struck in the winter season. And of course for families who relied on the store of dried corn to make it through the winter, it must have been a daunting choice to either eat corn that had gone musty, risking pellagra and death, or go without, risking starvation and death.

Here’s an article from the July 14, 1910 issue of Kentucky’s “Springfield Sun,” which discusses the scourge of ‘the dread pellagra.’

“Perryville, Ky., July 14.
—After a careful examination attending physicians announced yesterday afternoon that Laura Bottoms, colored, of this city, is afflicted with pellagra, a disease of comparatively recent origin, which became more or less prevalent in the southern States. This is the second case to have developed in Kentucky, the other having resulted in the death of a lady at Nicholasville last fall.

“Photographs were taken of the patient this morning and they will be sent to the medical journals to be used in a scientific study of the disease, which has puzzled the medical specialists of the nation. The disease, which is not considered infectious, is said to be caused by the eating of foods made from musty corn products. Scales develop on the body of the patient and the results are similar in some respects to leprosy.

mountain family with pellagraUnidentified family, all suffering from pellagra, c. 1920. Photo from National Library of Medicine.

“Among its first symptoms is usually a kind of ‘sunburn’ of face, chest and hands. This is followed by skin rash, catarrh of stomach and intestines, feverishness, lassitude and weakness, and as the trouble recurs in spring and autumn, year after year, the weakness increases and often leads to lunacy and death.

“Believing the disease to be infectious, Dr. J.J. Wolfe, of Durham, NC, has been lately seeking its organism in pellagrous blood and has obtained some spherical bacteria, without certain evidence that they are the cause of the disease. He has found a similar organism in a culture from damaged Indian corn.”

sources: Springfield Sun, Wednesday, July 20, 1910 at Kentucky Virtual Library

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