Botulism – A True Story

Posted January 17th, 2015 by Nanette Heffernan. Comment (0).

bot·u·lism – ˈbäCHəˌlizəm/noun – Food poisoning caused by a bacterium (botulinum) growing on improperly sterilized canned meats and other preserved foods.

Pasta SauceMany homesteaders tell me they are concerned about canning their own foods, for fear of getting sick. The concern is valid and shouldn’t be taken lightly. There are many food born illnesses reported each year. Most will cause unpleasant symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, ect.), however, the king of food born illness, botulism can result in death. And I can laugh about it now, but for a few scary hours, I thought I had it…

The ski report was ideal: Previous snow-fall – 2 feet, high of 46°, clear skies.  We had rented a cabin in the mountains for a few days of our winter break. My husband would take the kids skiing, and I, because I don’t ski, would enjoy two glorious days alone, snow shoeing in the back country. A perfect weekend.

Since we were only there for two days, I didn’t want to spend half of my free-time in a grocery store, so I brought all of our provisions with us, which included pasta and two jars of homemade marinara sauce for dinner.

I was busy making a pasta casserole for dinner while the family played games and watched TV. I dumped the cooked pasta, cheese and two jars of sauce into a baking dish and licked the spoon. My tongue tingled. I’d never tasted spoiled sauce and I wanted to be darn sure it was in fact spoiled before I made the dreaded trek—7 miles, uphill in the snow—to the store for a replacement dinner.

“Can you taste this?” I said to my husband, who obediently agreed.

He put the spoon in his mouth then ripped it out and spit violently into his hand. “That sauce is spoiled!”

“Darn. That’s what I thought.”

“What? You knew? Why did you make me taste it? We could have botulism now!”

My husband has been known to, uh… exaggerate situations from time-to-time so I went to the kitchen for another glass of wine while he fired up his computer and searched the CDC site.

“Botulism is a toxin that affects the nervous system and can cause paralysis and death. Even a tiny amount of toxin that is eaten or absorbed through a break in the skin or the eye can cause serious illness!” he shouted from the living room.

“I think it’s just sour,” I said.

Next he shhhes our four year old—now crying because Mommy might die—and calls his doctor and the hospital. Both sources are having a difficult time taking him seriously and tell him, “It’s really rare for people to die of botulism these days. But if you begin to have any stomach issues it’s probably a good idea to come in.”

I make the kids peanut butter sandwiches and tuck them into bed, then text a friend who happens to be renting a cabin a few streets away from us.

Me:      I know it sounds crazy but there’s a possibility we have botulism.

Her:     Ha! What?

Me:      We ate some bad homemade pasta sauce.

Her:     You don’t have botulism.

Me:      You’re probably right, but you know how your head itches when some mom calls you the day after a play-date to tell you she’s really sorry, her kid has lice?

Her:     Yeah?

Me:      My stomach hurts.

Her:     You don’t have botulism.

Me:      I know, it’s crazy. But if I did have to go to the hospital in the middle of the night do you think maybe you or your husband could come over to watch our kids so we don’t have to take them? I’m so sorry to ask.

Her:     Uh…  sure. But you don’t have botulism.

I head to bed, with a seriously queasy stomach. By 2:00 a.m. I’m violently ill, my friend’s husband is on his way to watch the kids, and we’re skidding through the snow toward the hospital.

The hospital staff ushers me to a room, listens to my story, and gives me some anti-nausea medicine.

“Feeling better?” the doctor says when she finally comes in to check on me.

“Yes.” And surprisingly I was.

“There’s a 24-hour flu going around. Sounds like it found you. But the good news is, you don’t have botulism.”

Moral of the story: buy a reputable canning book and follow it to the letter or take a class, because in the end botulism really isn’t funny.

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