foodish trivia roundup

Grab yourself a stack of flapjacks and griddlecakes, double down on a KFC double down sandwich, snap into a slim jim, crack open a durian fruit, or slide some lutefisk down your gullet. Nosh on a knockwurst and nibble on some nilla wafers, then crack open a Crystal Pepsi and bump a line of cheeto dust. Strap on the feedbag, it’s time for a food based trivia roundup.

beer :: molasses :: coconut :: sandwich :: frankfurter :: titles

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1. On an otherwise nondescript October day in 1814, the corroded hoops on a vat at the Meux and Company Brewery in London gave way and the tank ruptured. More than 600,000 liters of delicious delicious beer rushed out, the force of which caused multiple other vat-splosions in the same facility. A wave of nearly 1.5 million gallons of porter rocketed through the densely-populated neighborhood—flooding cellars, crumbling walls and buildings, and drowning eight unfortunate mortals. What a tragedy…my uncle went the same way. The scope of the disaster, now known as the London Beer Flood (totally uncreative name) was magnified because brewers had been engaged in a sort of “arms race” to employ the largest possible vats. Meux “won,” I guess you could say.

Related trivium: in the 19th century 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 also a dog breeder, the first to develop the golden retriever breed. He also worked with Col. Noseworthy during the haberdashery campaign!

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2. A century after that tsunami of suds, Boston faced its own flood of food: a morass of molasses. Early in the afternoon of January 15, 1919, a large storage tank containing some 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured. Catastrophically. Witnesses described the rivets popping out of the tank like machine gun fire, followed by a 40 foot high wave of molasses moving at some 35 miles per hour. Buildings were swept off their foundations, a railroad car was derailed, cars, trucks, and other debris were hurled into the air or the harbor. Witnesses were knocked over by the onrush of sickly-sweet air that preceded the syrupy swell.

molasses flood aftermath

Twenty-one people and many horses were killed; 150 were injured, and one disastrous mess was left behind. One description of the aftermath described the flailing of people drowning in quagmire of sugary brown tar: “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” (what a tragedy…my uncle went the same way). Rescue workers were literally diving into pools of molasses to extract trapped people and animals. Locals experienced regular coughing fits, presumably from trying to expel inhaled aerosolized molasses from their lungs. The entire harbor was stained brown for more than six months (!) (!!) (!!!). One also imagines the clean up crew really wishes the streets weren’t cobbled. Seriously, look at this:

molasses wading

The responsible company eventually paid out nearly $11 million inflation-adjusted dollars in settlement money, because of their insufficiently secured giant tank of molasses. (Side note: fermented molasses is used to make rum and/or ethanol, the latter of which is used in munitions. It wasn’t a giant tank of pancake topping, it was part of the military-industrial complex. Who knew?) Also, best book name about the disaster: Dark Tide.

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3. The island nation of Vanuatu (actually, it’s an archipelaginous nation…I just made that word up) was previously known as New Hebrides and has a great flag:

Vanuatu’s flag

For most of the 20th century, New Hebrides was a colonial vassal shared by France and the UK (the shared governance/oppression is technically called a “condominium.” I really like the idea of “sharing” in the context of imperialism. Such manners!). In July of 1980, the nation declared its independence and changed its name to Vanuatu, in the midst of what has come to be called The Coconut War.

A 12-week rebellion against the push for independence—including blockading the airport and destroying multiple bridges—was led by a theretofore nondescript man named Jimmy Stevens. Once underway, the New Hebridean government requested military assistance from their ersatz “benefactors,” but in the unique shared power structure, France prevented the UK from sending troops, and refused to allow their stationed troops to intervene. So soldiers from Papua, New Guinea were called in. The rebellion was really a “rebellion”—there weren’t many people and they were armed with slings and bows and arrows—so mostly it was a “wait them out” situation with little actual fighting and few casualties. The “war” ended when a truck carrying Stevens’ son went through a roadblock, was fired upon, and the son died. Stevens surrendered and was sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Stevens, it turns out, was backed (read: paid handsomely) by a shadowy libertarian organization called Phoenix Foundation (presumably not the same Phoenix Foundation that employed Angus MacGyver, otherwise I’m going to have some illusions shattered about ol’ Mac).

“for research”

NPR called it a “sinister right-wing organization” whose goal was to establish a tax haven and/or libertarian utopia, but mostly the former. In 1972, they’d set up a fake government-free island nation in the South Pacific, which was quickly quashed. Later, they financed an operation aiming to spin off one of the Bahamian islands as an independent country. The Vanuatu attempt was their last…that we know of. They are, after all, the Phoenix Foundation. France—who, remember, had refused to intervene—was also revealed to have supported (in unclear fashion) the “rebellion.” In any case, the “Coconut War” was an astroturf campaign. Great.

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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, who was—as the name suggests—an erstwhile monk who one day decided to become a pirate. A pirate, a pirate, oh yes a pirate he. Eustace initially “worked” for England in the service of King John’s fight against Philip II of France, serving as a sort of unofficial navy for John and holding the Channel Islands as a personal lair. He later switched sides and by 1215 was transporting war engines to the barons of England, who were then revolting against John’s general douchery (that ultimately led to John signing the Magna Carta. 1215 was a big year).

Eustace was captured and offered a choice of two sites for his execution. No record survives of his choice, but he was definitely beheaded (“you come at the king, you best not miss”). His brothers retained a hold on the Channel Islands until the Treaty of Lambeth compelled Louis to forcibly eject them from their island fortress.

Eustace’s island lair

5. Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965) was an associate justice on the Supreme Court from 1939 to 1962. Born in Vienna, Frankfurter was a study in contrasts—his pre-Supreme career and ideology was markedly liberal and, frankly, laudable. He supported the minimum wage and restricted work hours, and investigated war-time strikes for a presidential commission. As part of that, he argued that labor leader Thomas Mooney had been framed for a San Francisco bombing (Mooney spent 22 years in prison and was eventually pardoned); and he came down hard on strike-breaking, anti-labor tactics of the copper industry. f_frankfurterHe even wrote a book about the frame-job/immigrant hysteria perpetrated on Sacco and Vanzetti. Such were his “radical” credentials that Teddy Roosevelt accused him of “excusing men precisely like the Bolsheviki in Russia.”

All of which makes the recognized failure of his Supreme Court career so bizarre. So dedicated to judicial restraint was Frankfurter that he usually opted for the “take no action” approach to even landmark cases—when he wasn’t trying to avoid them altogether (as he did with interracial marriage). 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 JWs throughout the country. His use of the phrase “all deliberate speed” in the desegregation order in Brown vs. Board allowed southern schools to remain segregated for another decade plus. He wins points, though, for remarking that Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s death prior to the hearing on Brown vs. Board was the first good evidence he’d seen for the existence of god (almost assuredly 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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