foodish trivia roundup

Grab yourself a stack of flapjacks and griddlecakes, double down on a KFC double down, snap into a slim jim, crack open a durian fruit, or enjoy some lutefisk. Nosh on a knockwurst and nibble on some nilla wafers, then crack open a Crystal Pepsi: strap on the feedbag, it’s time for a food based trivia roundup.

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1. Time for a parable about corrosion. On an otherwise nondescript day in October 1814, the corroded hoops on a vat at teh Meux and Company Brewery in London gave way. The tank ruptured, spewing 600,000 gallons of beer, leading to a chain reaction of other vat failures. The end result of this series of vat-splosions was a nearly 1.5 million gallon lager tsunami rocketing through the densely-populated urban neighborhood. Cellars flooded, walls and buildings crumbed, and eight unfortunate mortals drowned in a sea of malted hops. A real tragedy…my uncle went the same way. The scope of the disaster—now uncreatively called the London Beer Flood—was magnified by a years-long brewers arms race, each trying to employ the largest vats. Meux “won,” as did the concept of mutually assured beerstruction.

Side note: the Meux brewery was helmed by—and I swear I am not clever enough to make this up—Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth. The Baron Tweedmouth—and again, not making this up—was a dog breeder who…developed? created?…the golden retriever breed. He also worked with Col. Noseworthy during the haberdashery campaign!

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2. A century after that amber avalanche, Boston was beset by its own comestible disaster: a morass of molasses. In the early afternoon of January 15, 1919, the first break in a cold snap, a 2.3 million gallon molasses tank catastrophically failed. Witnesses described rivets popping out of the tank like machine gun fire or a submarine at crush depth. A 40-foot wave of molasses crashed through town at 30+ miles per hour, sweeping buildings off foundations, derailing trains, and hurling vehicles into the air. Pedestrians were knocked over—not by the wave itself, but by the gale-force wind preceding the syrupy swell.

molasses flood aftermath

Twenty-one people and countless horses were killed; 150 were injured and one disastrous mess was left behind. People and animals trapped in the quagmire of sugary tar struggled to escape: “only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was…horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper.” A real tragedy…my uncle went the same way. Rescue workers were literally diving into pools of molasses to help the trapped. Locals coughed uncontrollably, trying to expel bits of aerosolized molasses from their lungs. The harbor was stained brown for SIX MONTHS (!!!). The whole enterprise revealed a heretofore unrecognized flaw with cobbled streets: it was really hard to clean them after a molasses flood.

molasses wading

The responsible company paid out nearly $11 million inflation-adjusted dollars in settlement money, for their insufficiently secured giant tank of molasses. Molasses, by the way, was used to make ethanol, used in production of (a) liquor and (b) munitions. It wasn’t a giant tank of pancake topping—it was black gold for the military-industrial complex.

Best book name about the disaster: Dark Tide.

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3. The island nation of Vanuatu—actually, it’s not one island but many, so perhaps it’s an archipelaginous nation—was previously known as New Hebrides and has a cool flag:

Vanuatu’s flag

For most of the 20th century, New Hebrides was a colonial vassal of both France and the UK. Not serially: at the same time. It’s a compact called a condominium, in which two more imperialist rulers, like children in kindergarten, agree to share control of a colony. But in July 1980, the nation declared independence and changed its name to Vanuatu, as part of  The Coconut War.

It was not a war for independence, but a 12-week rebellion against independence. Rebels blockaded the airport and destroyed bridges. The government requested assistance from their ersatz “benefactors,” but in the bizarre shared power structure, France could prevent the UK from sending soldiers and vice versa; so soldiers from New Guinea were called in. The rebellion was little more than a few people armed with slings and bows and arrows, so there was little fighting and few casualties. The rebellion ended when a rebellion truck ran a roadblock and the driver was killed. The rebellion leader surrendered and was sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Who was the leader? A nondescript and non-Vanuatan man named Jimmy Stevens. Stevens, it turns out, was backed / paid handsomely by a shadowy libertarian organization called Phoenix Foundation. Presumably this is different from the one that employed Angus MacGyver, or there’s going to be some damage done to my childhood.

“for research”

NPR called the non-MacGyver Phoenix Foundation a “sinister right-wing organization,” aiming to establish a tax haven and/or libertarian utopia, but mostly the former. Back in 1972, they’d set up a fake government-free island nation in the South Pacific, which was quashed. They later financed an operation aiming to make one of the Bahamian islands an independent country. The Vanuatu attempt was their last, that we know of. They are, after, the Phoenix Foundation. In any case, the “Coconut War” was an astroturf campaign. It seems like more people should be aware that some cloak-and-dagger private group is playing at geopolitics in this way, but what do I know?

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4. The Battle of Sandwich, on 24 August 1217, was a naval skirmish pitting a Plantagenet English Fleet against a near 100-ship French armada. The reasons for the battle are suitably byzantine for Middle Ages politics: London was “held” at the time by Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII), which did not sit well with the English. The French armada was to deliver supplies to Louis, but the English sussed that out and laid in wait at Sandwich. Once the French flotilla passed by, the English came out from hiding and attacked. With wind and surprise on their side, they laid substantial damage on the French forces—including throwing powdered lime in the air to be carried on the wind and into the eyes of French crewmembers—and won the day.

The French were led by Eustace the Monk. As the name suggests, Eustace was a monk, who one day decided to become a pirate. Initially “working” for England in the service of King John’s fight against Philip II of France, Eustace led a sort of unofficial English navy and held the Channel Islands as a personal lair. Later, he switched sides and by 1215 was transporting war engines to English barons revolting against John’s general douchery and malfeasance—the revolt that led to John signing the Magna Carta.

Eustace’s island lair

Eventually Eustace was captured and offered a choice of two sites for his execution. No record survives of his choice, but records definitely survive of his beheading. His brothers retained a hold on the Channel Islands until the Treaty of Lambeth compelled Louis to forcibly eject them from their island fortress.

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5. Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965) was an associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1939 to 1962. Frankfurter was born in Vienna, and here is a short pre-SCOTUS resume: supported minimum wage and restricted work hours; investigated war-time strikes for a presidential commission, eventually arguing that labor leader Thomas Mooney had been framed for the bombing that led to him spending 22 years in prison before being pardoned; came down hard on strike-breaking and anti-labor tactics in the copper industry; wrote a book about the frame-job / immigrant hysteria perpetrated on Sacco and Vanzetti; was accused by Teddy Roosevelt of “excusing men precisely like the Bolsheviki in Russia.” In short, he had a lot of unpopular opinions that ended up on the right side of history (or, at least, the not-wrong side of history).


Then there is the abject failure of his Supreme Court career, which is not me rendering an opinion, but historians. So dedicated was Frankfurter to the concept of “judicial restraint” that he was almost pathologically unable to take sides. In a case where Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from school for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Frankfurter sided with the school, a decision that led to hundreds of attacks on JW throughout the country. After spending months trying to duck the case altogether, Frankfurter deliberately inserted the phrase “with all deliberate speed” in the desegregation order of Brown vs. Board, used by schools to delay action for years. About the only good thing Frankfurter gets points for here is his remark that pro-segregation Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s death just prior to Brown was the first good evidence he’d seen for the existence of god. The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, but hilarious nonetheless.


No record survives of his feelings on hot dogs.

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6. Books with food-related titles include: On the Banks of Plum Creek, Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake, Cod, A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich, The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, Bacon: A Love Story, and An Intellectual History of Cannibalism. Movies with food-related titles include: Hamburger Hill, Milk, Space Jam, The Jerky Boys, and Pollock.


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