april trivia roundup

Time to roundup some April 23rd trivia about pure beer and bionic entertainment…

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1. The Bavarian Reinheitsgebot (“purity decree”) was adopted on April 23, 1516 and holds that beer shall be made with naught but three ingredients: water, barley (malt), and hops. This was not the first beer law; a version of it had already been adopted in 1487, and Hammurabi’s code set punishments for overcharging barkeeps (death by drowning). In fact, beer was so central to life that the Egyptians, Sumerians, Mesopotamians, and Celts all had beer goddesses (why goddesses specifically? Well, Mesopotamian records indicate that brewing was a well-respected job and done almost entirely by women, but it’s unclear which is the chicken and which is the egg of that situation).

Mesopotamian beer receipt
Mesopotamian beer receipt

In any case, there are two interesting things about the purity law. The first interesting thing about the beer purity law is that it makes absolutely no mention of yeast, which is, of course, crucial to a fermented drink. Yeast wasn’t recognized as the organism responsible for fermentation of beer until 1857, when it was described by Louis Pasteur. Prior to that, brewing relied on naturally occurring yeasts from the air or, in some cases, from saliva. Yeast wasn’t added to the allowable list until the late 1800s.

The second interesting thing about the beer purity decree is that it wasn’t really about beer. The purity and price controls of the law were really meant to ensure that wheat and rye—cheaper than barley and better for bread—were reserved for bakers; or, in other words, to ensure there was enough bread to go around.

The close relationship between beer and bread goes all the way back. Beer was being brewed 5000 or perhaps even 10000 years ago, right at the dawn of mankind’s use of cultivated grains. Which leads to a curious, if tenuously supported, theory holding that grains were first domesticated in the service of brewing, not breadmaking (technically, even by the “beer first” theory, bread came first—it’s just that it wasn’t made to eat, but for use as a beer precursor).

The evidence is all circumstantial. Beer may have been more nutritious than breads made from early grains: teosinte is a grain that, after centuries of careful cultivation, would become maize—but in its original state, was more suited to producing beer than flour. And most simply, if an early human stuck some wild barley in their proto fanny pack and left it there for awhile, there’s a good chance it would have sprouted and fermented, producing accidental beer—an event far more likely than accidental bread. This immensely speculative NYT article even suggests that inebriated humans were more creative and more easily suppressed herding instincts than their sober counterparts, which is fun but not grounded in reality.

Since received wisdom holds that domestication of grain led to the development of mass agriculture led to large permanent settlements, one is also led from this idea to the conclusion that beer birthed “modern” civilization. And given that agriculture is at best a double-edged sword and at worst responsible for virtually everything wrong with the world (overpopulation, starvation, hierarchical societies and inequality, resource hoarding), one is inexorably led to the conclusion that sigh, I need a beer.

More on the beer theory here and here. And for a great article about the archaeology of beer, see here.

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2. April 23 is the birthday of Lee Majors, TV’s Steve Austin, the test pilot made bionic in The Six Million Dollar Man. The series lasted 100 episodes over five seasons plus six made-for-TV movies, three before and three after the series. Spin-off The Bionic Woman actually owed to a second season two-parter in which Austin’s fiancee, tennis pro Jaime Summers, is nearly killed in a tragic parachuting accident, given bionic repairs, then dies when her body rejects them. The character was so well-liked that the spin-off retconned her actual death as a near death averted by a well-timed cryogenic freezing. The German version, by the way, translates as “the seven million dollar woman.”

Among the best-known episodes of either series was The Secret of Bigfoot. In it, Austin engages in hand-to-hand combat with the mythical biped, only to pull off its arm, revealing a robotic interior. He gives chase to the “wounded” creature, ends up inside a volcano, and discovers that Bigfoot is a robot security guard for a caldera-dwelling alien civilization. All this time I’ve been thinking that sasquatch is a relict population of Gigantopithecus.

robot bigfoot dismemberment
robot bigfoot dismemberment

Cyborg bigfoot was so popular with audience that it was brought back for three more episodes, including one where his alien creators sent him to steal precious metals from the US government—which makes sense, sasquatch are stealthy—a crime for which Steve Austin is blamed. It also came as an action figure:

paunchy cyborg action figure
paunchy cyborg action figure

The lunacy of the bigfoot arc hardly does justice to the sheer deranged preposterousness of other plots. Take, for example, the three-episode series Kill Oscar, in which the bionic woman is sent to the island fortress of demented genius Dr. Franklin, whose remarkably fiendish plot for world domination includes an army of female androids (he calls them fembots, no joke) that will steal the US government’s secret weather control device (?!?!). He/they is/are stopped in the nick of time. Franklin’s son Carl later reactivates the fembots to steal an energy ray in the aptly titled third-season episode Fembots in Las Vegas. Or how about One of Our Running Backs is Missing, which was about a missing running back and starred football heroes Larry Csonka, Dick Butkus, and pre-Apollo-Creed Carl Weathers. The “finale” wrap-up TV movie, 1994’s Bionic Ever After?, has Sommers and Austin tie the knot. I am not making that up.

A reboot—The Six Billion Dollar Man, naturally—is in the works, with Mark Wahlberg in the titular role.


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