The enduring power of the poppy seed

How I discovered that poppy seeds could be used for more than making muffins

by Pamela Young


As a kid growing up in north Edmonton in the 1960s, I looked out our dining window one autumn afternoon to see a man I didn’t know rummaging around in our mostly harvested garden, stuffing something into an open burlap sack. Curious and a little afraid, I alerted my mother, who scared off the intruder by banging fiercely on the window and making vigorous shooing gestures.

We waited until my dad got home to see what the stranger had taken. All that was missing were the seed heads of most of our poppies. My dad laughed. “If he’s planning to use them the way I think he is, he should have been here a couple of months ago when the heads were green, and the poppy juice was still running. I doubt the seeds will do him much good now.” I had no idea what my dad was talking about, so that evening in the garden, I received my first lesson on the ways in which poppy seeds can be used for more than making muffins.

Although this was strange and fascinating news to me at the time, the opium poppy’s many properties have been common knowledge for thousands of years. Archeological evidence of papaver somniferum cultivation—in Latin, the sleep-bringing poppy—dates back more than 7,500 years to sites along the Mediterranean and in Western Europe. Ancient societies used poppy seeds as a source of food, fuel, medicine and for altering states of consciousness. Archeologists found the remnants of a poppy seed cake in the ruins of Pompeii. Tutankhamen’s wife is depicted on an ancient Egyptian wall mural, tending to her sick husband with an opium poppy. Hypnos and Thanatos, the Greek twin gods of sleep and death, are frequently represented with poppy seed heads on their crowns. Clearly, the Greeks were well aware that the poppy could bring on the sleep of the dead, figuratively and literally.

Our fascination with the poppy’s multiple uses continues into modern times. Britain’s Royal College of Anaesthetists depicts poppy seed heads on its coat of arms. Seinfeld’s Elaine misses out on a trip to Nigeria with her boss because she tests opium-positive after eating a poppy seed bagel for breakfast. Even Google reflects our curiosity; do a search for poppy seed and you’ll get more than 1.6 million returns, most of which fit into two categories: how do I use poppy seeds in baking and cooking? And, can I use poppy seeds to get baked and cooked?

Customers visit the Kingsway-area Baltyk Bakery to indulge in the nutty crunch of poppy seed rolls, buns and cakes. These products are especially popular with Edmontonians of Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, and Slovakian heritage who are looking for a nostalgic taste of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens.

“Poppies are very easy to grow in Eastern Europe,” says Kasia Zubik, the Baltyk Bakery’s manager, “almost like weeds. Traditionally, the seeds provided a cheap source of energy to a poor population. Not only that, but they could be stored easily over a long winter.”

Each poppy pod contains hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds, so plants are plentiful and their flowers multiply quickly. As a result, Eastern Europeans viewed poppies as a symbol of well- being, prosperity and fertility. Perhaps in association with this symbolism, some Polish households invited visitors to compete with one another in poppy seed grinding contests. According to traditional thinking, the winner would be the first to marry.

Zubik believes these competitions may have been motivated as much by practicality as symbolism. The preparation of a tasty poppy seed filling still takes a full day: soaking the seeds for several hours in hot water; draining them; grinding them into a smooth paste, and mixing in other ingredients such as eggs and sugar before rolling the paste onto the pastry. “So maybe this tradition was just a way to get the hard work of grinding the seeds done a little more quickly,” says Zubik.

Lawrence Bliss, owner of Bliss Baked Goods, Edmonton’s only kosher bakery, says that poppy seeds were equally important in Ashkinaze Jewish households of Central Europe. Mohn, the Yiddish word for poppy seed, is related to manna from heaven. “People were poor, they used what they had,” says Bliss. “Poppies regrew quickly, so people associated them with abundance and the belief that God would bring them exactly what they needed.”

Poppy seeds also had a number of other advantages in Jewish households. They were a readily available protein source and easily transportable when migration became an unavoidable necessity. Also, unlike meat and dairy, which cannot be served together according to Jewish food law, poppy seeds belong to the neutral food category, which can be eaten with either meat or dairy, adding to their versatility.

Bliss’s customers enjoy the flavour and texture of poppy seeds in buns and cakes throughout the year. Purim, a holiday which commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from the evil government official Haman, who planned to annihilate them, provides the occasion for the bakery to make hamantaschen, a pastry-like cookie traditionally filled with poppy seeds. The triangular shape represents Haman’s taschen—his pockets or purse. The poppy seeds have been interpreted variously as symbolizing the taxes Haman collected, or the bribe money he offered the King of Persia to do away with the Jewish population.

Both Bliss and Zubik acknowledge that these traditional cultures were well aware of the poppy seed’s non-food uses. “Life was physically hard and winters were cold,” says Bliss. “Poppy seeds had an analgesic effect, so people could eat them and feel a little better.”

Zubik says that Eastern European parents calmed their children by giving them poppy seeds soaked in water with sugar. In pre-Christian Poland, people ate a mixture of mushrooms, honey, and poppy seeds, which they believed would help them to contact the dead.

Do Zubik and Bliss have any concerns about eating poppy seeds? Zubik says no; her children eat them all the time with no problem. Bliss’s poppy seed Danish comes with a tongue-in-cheek ‘Don’t Take A Drug Test’ warning, just in case.

Which brings us to the second most- asked, poppy-related question. Could eating poppy seeds actually impact a drug test? Sabina Valentine, a registered dietician and U of A lecturer, says that the answer lies in how thoroughly the seeds have been cleaned during processing. There is no regulation or standardization of this process, meaning the amount of morphine that may still be clinging to even small amounts of poppy seeds could vary country to country. “So, yes, poppy seeds could cause a person to exceed the morphine threshold,” she says. Unlike the ancient Greek Olympians, who ate poppy seeds mixed with honey, today’s athletes are advised not to eat any poppy seed products before competition.

While Valentine realizes poppy seeds can be misused, she recommends we focus on their benefits. “They add a nutty taste and interesting texture to food, and they’re a source of polyunsaturated fat, carbohydrates, and dietary fibre.” The key, she says, is “not to eat them in excessive amounts.”

Good advice to follow with any food we love, and even better when that food is as complex as the poppy seed.

Orange Poppy Seed Dressing
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T fresh lemon juice (about ¼ lemon, juiced)
3 T orange juice (about ½ small orange, juiced
½ t grated orange rind
1 t chopped chives or green onion
1 T poppy seeds
1 T heavy cream or 1 T greek yogurt (optional)
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Whisk together oil and citrus juices until emulsified. Add rind, chives and poppy seeds. Add dairy if you prefer a creamy dressing. Check seasoning and adjust if necessary. Toss with butter lettuce or small cooked beets. Makes about ½ c dressing.

Pamela Young enjoys eating poppy seeds, but only for non-medicinal purposes.