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This Day In Food History: Zachary Taylor, Cherries & Cream

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Here's a little cautionary tale next time you're considering digging into some suspicious looking potato salad at an outdoor picnic. On July 4th, 1850 President Zachary Taylor attended a series of Independence Day celebrations in hot and humid Washington D.C. wearing a three-piece suit (shorts were then and are now not so much an option for the Commander-In-Chief).

Already more rough than ready, the aging war hero further taxed his constitution by allegedly partaking of the local smorgasbord, including one very large bowl of cherries and cream that had been, um, aging in the roasting sun. The hoi-polloi were thrilled that the President deigned to eat their humble dishes; his stomach, less so.

Over the next week, Taylor suffered from agonizing stomach pains, nausea, and vomiting. One hundred and sixty years ago today he subsequently died from the worst case of food poisoning known to man.

Or did he? I couldn't write this post in good faith without briefly acknowledging the frenzy of conspiracy theories and alternate causes of death that have been proposed in the century and half since Taylor's demise.

Many medical historians point to typhoid, cholera, or dysentery rather than gastroenteritis, while others claim the fateful bowl of cherries and cream to be a red herring and that President was gravely ill long before his picnic tour. In the early 1990s, Taylor's body was exhumed and autopsied when writer Clara Rose hypothesized that one of his fellow Americans had in fact poisoned him with arsenic on or around the Fourth. Traces of arsenic were found but the amount was deemed insufficient to cause death. The controversy continues as some assert the post-mortem testing was seriously flawed.

Perhaps we'll never know with any precision what person or food is to blame for ol' Zack's fatal stomach affliction. In any case, my gut tells me that eating strange, sun-soaked perishables couldn't have helped.

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