November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Mark Levy/Casual Observer

pope eating

“I’d really rather not, but if you insist…”
“Oh, I do…”


The Life (or Death)

of a Food taster

by Mark Levy

Recently, as I lay in bed trying to recover from a horrendous upset stomach and high fever due to an otherwise delicious lunch, I started to think — hallucinate, really — about food tasters. You know, those fellows in Rome during the first century who tasted every meal the emperors were served before the dinner bell rang.

The most famous taster was Halotus (20 A.D. – 70 A.D.), a servant to the Roman Emperor Claudius (10 B.C. – 54 A.D.). It turns out that Halotus may have acted at the behest of Claudius’ wife, Agrippina the Younger (16 A.D. – 59 A.D.). She was the sister of Caligula, by the way, which has nothing to do with this narrative.

So Halotus poisons Claudius with mushrooms so that Agrippina’s 16-year-old son from a previous marriage, Nero     (37 A.D. – 68 A.D.), can take over the “emperorcy.” This conspiracy theory is bolstered by the fact that Nero, when he ascended to the throne, executed many, including his mother. However, he did not execute Halotus or even fire him from his position as food taster. Nero may have been one of the worst tyrants in history, but at least he didn’t dispatch his food taster.

A food taster’s job is to make sure no one poisons the boss. This is why I think being a food taster is a pretty cushy job. In addition to the enviable opportunity to taste every meal the emperor is about to eat — the food probably being a notch or two better than the gruel the average slave is served — the food taster is virtually assured that nothing will happen to him. How incompetent would an assassin have to be to attempt to poison a monarch knowing that the trusty food taster would raise the alarm himself by dying first?

I don’t think an actuarial study has been performed, but I’ll bet the life expectancy of a taster rivals that of a teetotaling vegetarian.

I had thought that the occupation of food tasting went out with Romulus Augustus — or Romulus Augustulus, for short — the last Roman emperor whose reign lasted not quite a year. But no, even recent U.S. presidents have food tasters. Although the Secret Service won’t admit it, presidents from Reagan to Obama take people they call White House chefs along to sample the vittles whenever they travel from the White House.

I don’t know if the Pope has a food taster, but isn’t it suspicious that you never see His Holiness with a corned beef sandwich or even an ice cream cone in public? What’s up with that?

About the author:

Mark Levy is a regular contributor of the Casual Observer column to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about Mark in “About Us.”



Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room