Spoiling the Broth

When recipes get it wrong

Around this time last year, celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson was tucking into a big piece of humble pie.

Worrall Thompson gave an interview to Healthy & Organic Living magazine last summer in which he talked about eating healthy, organic food and foraging for wild plants and weeds. He also offered a tip to readers: add a little henbane to your salads for a summer treat.

Ah, delicious—and deadly. Henbane is toxic.

“Its name has Anglo-Saxon origins - meaning killer of hens - and it can cause hallucinations, drowsiness and disorientation in humans,” the BBC reported. “Larger quantities can cause a loss of consciousness, seizures, trembling of the limbs and, in extreme cases, death.”

Once made aware of the mistake, the magazine rushed to warn subscribers. “Henbane is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten,” it said. “As always, check with an expert when foraging or collecting wild plants.”

Worrall Thompson was understandably embarrassed by the mistake. He also told the BBC he’s fully aware that henbane has a “nasty history” and “is associated with lots of mythical tales — it’s said to turn you black and it’s used in witches potions.”

“It’s a bit embarrassing but there have been no reports of any casualties. Please do pass on my apologies,” he said.

Cookbook authors are well acquainted with the need for corrections. Award-winning cookbook author Carole Walter had perhaps the worst experience when her James Beard-winning book, Great Cakes, had to be reprinted after she, like Worrall Thompson, listed a deadly ingredient (Lily of the Vally).

While most errors of measurement or incorrect ingredients won’t kill anyone, they can certainly ruin a recipe and hurt the author’s reputation. As a result, authors will publish recipe corrections online to help readers. Newspapers have long published recipes, which of course means they’ve been publishing recipe corrections for just as long. With that in mind, it’s only fair to share this potentially fatal mistake from the Observer U.K.:

We should clarify that the stir-fried morning glory recipe featured in Observer Food Monthly last week uses an edible morning glory Ipomoea aquatica, found in south east Asia and also known as water spinach. This should not to be confused with the UK Ipomoea, also known as morning glory, which is poisonous.

This recent correction from the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario also attempted to fix a dangerous error:

In Monday’s Spectator, the Ginger Cake with Macerated Fruit and Lemon Mascarpone incorrectly listed 2 cups of cooked penne pasta as an ingredient. It should have said rice pasta. The recipe is for Celiac Awareness Month. We apologize for the error.

As did this 2006 correction in the Topeka Capital-Journal:

A recipe on Wednesday’s Flavor page called for uncooked eggs, but it didn’t contain a warning that uncooked eggs can be a source of salmonella poisoning.

To alleviate the possibility of food poisoning, use pasteurized eggs in place of the raw eggs, or cook the egg mixture into a custard to 16 degrees before freezing it.

Sometimes, however, it’s the chef who suffers an unfair fate at the hands of a newspaper. From the Guardian:

A taste test of various foods described a sample from Anila’s Curry Sauces as starting well but having “a slightly dirty aftertaste”. Our reviewer meant to convey that the aftertaste was odd – not to imply that food hygiene might be poor (Look, no gluten! 19 August, page 14, G2).

Finally, other mistakes, such as a recent one from Out magazine, are far less than fatal. But they commit perhaps the cardinal sin of food and beverage guidance—killing a good time:

Correction: In the May 2009 Liquidity column Dale Degroff’s recipe for the Stone Pole was printed without its chief ingredient, 1/2 ounce of Zubrowka vodka. Out regrets the error.

Correction of the Week

Keva McKibbin (“Modern Weddings”, Magazine, August 22) did not say that she was “blown off her face” when she first met her husband, but that she was “blown off her feet”. We apologise for any embarrassment caused by our reporter’s mishearing. —The Times (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.