“The Fish that Makes Dreams” and other Psychedelic Foods

We are about to embark on an historical adventure through time and around the world. I know that may sound intimidating but I will be your “trip guide”. All over the world there are naturally occurring psychedelics that humans have discovered, and we have created a few from these discoveries. The history behind all of these is the same. Just like the adult-toddlers we are, someone, at some point, made the decision to put something strange in their mouth. Sometimes we discover something delicious, sometimes we die, and sometimes we find something that makes us feel like we want to die, but makes for a good story. Get ready to revisit some things you may know and learn a few fun food facts that may, or may not, be legal in the contiguous United States. Think of it as The Magic School Bus, but for adults… and about drugs. For our first leg, we will travel to Nepal to meet the Garungs.


A still from the Winnie the Pooh movie depicting a dancing heffalump and woozle

Do you remember when Winnie the Pooh fell asleep and had that awful dream that felt like an acid trip? Heffalumps and Woozles? Well Pooh must have gotten some of that funny honey from the Nepalese Garungs. They are a tribe of about 180,000 people, some who live at the bottom of an eight-thousand-foot peak and are surrounded by jungle. The Garungs have lived in this area since the 15th century and many of them have become successful scientist, athletes, musicians, and even military leaders -no burnouts here. Used in rituals or for fun, but mostly sold in Japan for medicinal use, the hallucinogenic honey they cultivate is an essential part of their livelihood and culture. These people are caught between two worlds – their Buddhist upbringings and the Chinese Maoists who have encroached upon this territory. They are constantly monitored to make sure they are not taking honey from communist communal honey sites and their tribal culture is always threatened by these regulations.

Once a year, giant Himalayan bees come and make huge honeycombs on the sides of cliffs, which are harvested in Spring and Fall. This isn’t just any honey. This honey is hallucinogenic and an aphrodisiac, eaten straight from the comb or after being strained in a woven basket. The poisonous flowers that the bees visit give the honey its other-worldly qualities. The hunters know when to harvest by knowledge and practice passed down from generations. At around dawn, the men head out to find the honey. Two men prepare the ropes and ladders, and by ropes I mean sketchy jungle bamboo holding sketchy jungle twigs to make a ladder, to access this honey. Armed with baskets filled with supplies, the men take a half-day trip through the cloud forests until they see a large black mass hanging from the underside of a cliff. They perform a pujah, a ritual of prayers where incense is burned and a chicken (which is later eaten) is sacrificed, to invoke the forest spirits and be protected from falls. Next they wet the rope, climb above the comb, and toss the rope down. Men at the bottom light fires with freshly cut foliage to smoke out the bees so men can successfully harvest without getting harmed.

Garung harvester poised on a handmade rope, prodding large honeycombs

I know what you’re thinking. “Cool story, bro. But why do I care?” For over two hundred years China, has been slowly cutting off the lifeblood of Nepal. The Buddhists in Nepal have lived communally, without issue, for centuries. China is a dictatorship Communist country that has slowly been invading Nepal. China’s idea of communism is much different than what the original philosophy was. Instead of the Nepalese being able to harvest the honey as they have done for generations, the Chinese have arbitrarily taken some of the hives. So not only is China dictating who can harvest where, they are taking the livelihood of many tribal people so that they cannot thrive and possibly upsetting the apple cart. Forbidding people to practice their religion and cultural traditions is a sure-fire way to kill a culture (like our forefathers did with slaves and Native Americans).


Sarpa salpa. Sounds innocuous enough. Could be some sort of snake, or bug… But it is actually the next food on our journey. Sarpa salpa, known commonly as the dreamfish, is a species of sea bream. It can be found in the East Atlantic, Mediterranean, Bay of Biscay, and South Africa. It has occasionally been found as far north as Great Britain. Even the Romans used the fish on a regular basis as a recreational drug. Scientists are not sure if the fish itself is hallucinogenic or the algae, which grows on seagrass, eaten is which make the fish hallucinogenic. The sarpa salpa has been served in Mediterranean restaurants for years but in 2006, people decided to take a closer look after an incident with two men.

Sarpa salpa on a fork with a yellow and orange psychedelic background

A 40-year-old man experienced mild digestive troubles and terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations after eating a dream-fish in a restaurant. He was taken to the hospital because of his violent hallucinations and recovered a few days after the meal. He was unable to recall the hallucinatory period. Another man, 90-years-old, had auditory hallucinations two hours after eating a specimen of Sarpa salpa. The two following nights, he had numerous nightmares and recovered spontaneously after a period of three days.

If you think about the food chain, we are eating what our food has eaten, so on and so forth until we get down to the grass and grains. Even still, those may be treated with chemicals. All of this buildup, called biomagnification, enters our body. There has been an issue with too much mercury in fish in the wild. They eat other fish with trace amounts of mercury and eventually that mercury rises to not so ideal levels. Is this something that should worry us? Algae blooms are a real issue, and so is dumping in the ocean. Would it be possible that this hallucinogenic algae could be in your fish one day? Have we overlooked how this concentration of chemicals, in plants and animals, may negatively affect us?

Food chain chart showing biomagnification in marine animals


Ergot. Have you heard of it? It’s just a pesky fungus that gets into your bread. Not a big deal until you start tripping and accusing people of witchcraft. Ergot of Rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The ergot that replaces the grain of the rye is a dark, pill-like shape that is easily overlooked. This ergot, which is ground with the wheat or rye and baked into the bread, has caused many cases of strange behaviors throughout history.

Ergot mold on rye stalk

Ergotism is what the actual poising is called. There are two sets of symptoms that can be found in cases where serious poisoning occurred: convulsive and gangrenous (extremities fall off) ergotism. We will focus on convulsive ergotism. It is characterized by nervous dysfunction, where the victim is twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and wryneck, a more or less fixed twisting of the neck, which seems to simulate convulsions or fits. In some cases, this is accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations, as well as a number of other symptoms. Since ergotism can be traced back to the Greek period, this set of symptoms may account for some of the Saints that we know and love. Bread has always been a staple, be it rich or poor, so could it be possible that people like Joan of Arc and the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard are a result of this poisoning? There was even a scare in 1951 where the entire French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit was hallucinating, which many people attribute to ergot poisoning.

Across many French and Central European religions, there have been may accounts of people having convulsions and seeing visions from God. They seem to have reached a higher level of spirituality and has gotten them closer to god, but what about the “party drug” derived from ergot – LSD. Can this level of spirituality be achieved similarly through this hallucinogenic? (spirituality is often expressed as a sense of existential well-being which has been referred to as an understanding or belief in the meaningfulness of one’s life)

Dr. Hofmann depicted by Alex Grey

LSD was synthesized on November 16, 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. This was discovered by trying to find other medicinal values for ergot. For many years LSD was used in a clinical setting, in microdoses (or doses that do not have hallucinogenic effects), to help people work through their issues as it allowed people to access trauma in a way that is not connected with fear or anxiety. As they explain it, they can see things from a place of love and without fear. On that note, lets take this bus back to the grand Ole USA. On our trip, we have traveled to Nepal, the Mediterranean Sea, and even to France and Austria. We have touched on some world issues, but the last stop is a bit closer to home.

Two counter-culture women, one holding a sign which reads “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity

LSD became illegal (after years of CIA trials) in 1968, and what was going on during this time? The Vietnam War. The counter culture was using this to “expand their minds” which increased their spirituality and openness to loving their fellow man. This made it hard for them to accept the war and many protests came because of the new spiritual awakening. Was making LSD illegal a way to keep the minds of people stay closed? Peyote is used as both a spiritual and recreational drug. In Peru, the Incan descendants drink chicha until they black out to gain spiritual insight. All over the world, hallucinogenic substances have been used, without issue, until someone more powerful (more accurately, a government more powerful) steps in and makes rituals like these illegal.

LSD and religion are both ways to find spirituality, but any form of worship is protected by the constitution. You can’t put people in jail for going to church, but you can remove the people who use hallucinogenic as a vehicle for spirituality. With a new appreciation for human life, users may begin to have views that may be directly opposed to the agenda of the government. For many years, LSD has been successfully used to treat medial conditions, just like the honey harvested from the Garungs. Hallucinogenic fish were used for fun by the Romans, a culture that is revered today. If ergot has produced venerable saints, what is so scary about using a derivative for medical use? Opiates are used for medical purposes and they cause addictions which break families apart. What is the problem with a non-addictive substance that has proven medicinal uses with no long-lasting side effects?

As much as I would love to get into cocaine wine and medical marijuana, I’m sure this trip has been plenty to think about. Hopefully you have gleaned some new information and maybe have a new perspective on a few things you didn’t know were food related. Who knew honey and communism were related? These topics were chosen because they are important to me and, because in some way or another, I can relate to these topics. Though I may have some bias about mind/mood-altering substances, all the over-arching issues may relate to you as well. Food goes hand in hand with larger social issues. Our daily lives revolve around food and the stories and sacrifices behind them. Our culture and our plates are created by those unseen people, be it long gone ancestors or the hidden, underpaid immigrants picking your organic, “fair trade” strawberries. What are the long-term effects of imperialism? I know that I am not the only American unsure of their cultural heritage because of the conquest of my ancestors and forced extinguishing of my forefather’s rituals. Have we really thought about the effect that our waste has on us in a holistic sense? Is that $15 yellow-fin sushi roll worth the poison it contains? Are hippies really any different than those who attend church every Sunday? Is spiritual peace something only for the pious? I don’t have the answers, but hopefully what I have shared will encourage you to take a second look at what’s on your plate, and the story behind it.

Excerpt from the comic “Chew” written by John Layman


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