Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

Just another weblog


You’re at a cocktail party and the conversation around you has waned. People standing around you are your shoulder hoping they see someone more interesting to talk to.

You’re on a date – the first you’ve had in months – and suddenly you’re tongue-tied. You can’t think of a single thing to say.

The debate around your in-laws’ dinner table has become heated as your wife’s younger brother defends displaying his latest nipple piercing (the one on his girlfriend) and you desperately want to change the subject to something more innocuous, yet interesting enough to distract the rest of the family, thereby making you the in-laws’ favorite hero and guaranteeing you some action with the spousal unit later.

You’re wishing you had a fun fact to know and tell.

Wish no more. If you lean closer, refill your glass of wine, and settle in for a bit, I’ll share one with you.

You’ve heard of Death by Chocolate.

You’ve heard of Death by Hari Kiri, or Seppuku.
Most of us have even heard of Absynthe Death.

There is another manner of death by which we never think we might die. It is, however, a sweet death, even sweeter than the Hiram College Band performance of J.S. Bach’s Komm süsser Tod.

I speak of Death by……


“Death by molasses? You’ve got to be kidding,” I hear you say. And you’d have a point. To a point, anyway.

Molasses is really kind of healthy. It’s made when the juice of sugar cane is boiled, similar to the boiling of maple sap to make maple syrup. After boiling, the sugar crystals we are familiar with are removed from the resulting syrup with centrifugal force.

Sugar cane is grown mostly in the West Indies (in the Caribbean, for those of you who don’t know), and was exported to the American colonies and then to the US, where it was the primary sweetener until the late 19th century.

The cane juice is boiled three times. Light molasses comes from the first two boils, and can be the color of homey to a medium amber shade. The third boiling of the juice yields blackstrap molasses, which is the dark stuff that traditionally sweetens ginger cookies and baked beans.

A Sugar Cane Refinery with

Holding Tanks for Molasses

In addition to the benefit of being a natural sweetener, blackstrap molasses is just chock full of minerals and vitamins. In fact, several tests have shown that the more blackstrap is boiled, the higher the concentration of iron. This is something every anemic ought to know. Depending on the brand and the quality, up to 25% of the RDA of iron can be found in blackstrap. How about using it instead of an artificial sweetener in your coffee or tea? The 16 calories per teaspoon is counterbalanced by the other health benefits, in my opinion.

And while no self-respecting blogger such as myself would hold herself out as a doctor, I am always looking for herbal remedies and cures. The Earth Clinic website excitedly claims to “have emails from our readers about blackstrap molasses curing cancerous tumors, fibroid tumors, anxiety, constipation, edema, heart palpitations, anemia, arthritic pain, joint pain, and acne, just to name a few. It has also been reported that molasses turns gray hair back to its original color and is a wonderful skin softener!”

I shall be washing my hair in molasses this evening, just to see if the gray fades as Earth Clinic’s readership claims. I hope the disappearance of the gray isn’t due to the blackstrap sticking to the hair and gumming it up. (Actually, it’s the copper in the molasses that does the trick. A copper deficiency is usually to blame for prematurely gray hair.)

Molasses has been credited with curing tumors, cycts and other benign growths, cancerous growths; arthritis; ulcers, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis; high blood pressure, angina pectoris and other conditions related to the circulatory system; constipation, colitis and other digestive disorders, including gallstones and bladder problems; various types of anemia; nervous conditions; and even the effects of menopause. It is said to strengthen nails and hair, and, like I said before, reverse premature graying of hair. It speeds healing after surgery. Yeah, this molasses is some healthy stuff.

It even makes certain herbs more potent. For example, certain growers of marijuana claim that molasses binds the nutrients to the soil more efficiently than other agents, so they use it to grow better weed. Far out. (Anybody got that guy’s number?)

And speaking of mind-altering substances, no story about molasses would be complete without a reference to all that makes being a pirate worth being a pirate (in addition to the booty, or course): Rum!

You didn’t think all that sugar cane was grown just to sweeten some colonist’s tea, now did you?

“That’s all well and good,” you object, “And all this rot about molasses is fascinating. But, you promised us a story of death by molasses.”

And so I did.

When Molasses is stored, it’s is kept in great round tanks, similar to those that store oil.

Molasses Tank

I’m going to tell you a story of one such tank, which once sat on a pier in Boston Harbor. It was noonish on a weekday, January 15, 1919. The temperature rose that day from a frigid 2 degrees Fahrenheit to about 43 degrees. As it did, the air inside a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses expanded. Because of the speed with which the air temperature rose, the air expanded faster than the poorly constructed tank could let it off. The tank exploded.

A wave of molasses 15-40 feet high soared and sloshed its way across two city blocks near the pier at about 35 miles per hour. A housewife was crushed to death in the debris of her house, which was demolished by the wave of molasses. The molasses ripped apart nearby elevated train tracks, nearly taking out a train. Gluey death captured people, horses, and dogs in its sticky ooze, finally settling two to four feet deep in the streets near the north Boston pier.

In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote,“Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him.” A fourth sister died, and Anthony himself was found among those thought to be dead.

The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” That rush of air tossed people, animals and debris in every direction outward from the exploded tank. A truck was picked up by the sticky deluge and thrown into Boston Harbor. A gathering of municipal employees on their lunch break in one of the buildings were caught in the flow as the building shattered around them and pieces of it hurled as far as fifty yards. A fire station was destroyed by the force of the blast and one of the four firefighters was killed. Three others were injured. Carts, wagons, and trucks were overturned and a number of horses were killed, unable to regain their footing in the sticky flood.

Approximately 150 were injured, and twenty-one people died.Some were crushed by debris and others became mired in the molasses and asphyxiated. At least two of the dead were not found for several days, and were so bruised by the pummelling they had taken in the molasses wave that they were unrecognizable.

The cleanup took months. As volunteers traveled to and from the site of the disaster, molasses stuck to their shoes, clothes, tools, and skin. It was transferred with them through the trains and transports of the city, and soon all of Boston, from the waterfront where the horror had taken place, to the suburbs where helpful volunteers lived, was covered in a sticky verneer.

On a warm day, the smell of molasses still permeates Boston.

I found this recipe while researching this blog, and I thought it would be a fitting start to our healthier new diet, which shall, I know, henceforth be sweetened with molasses. It’s written the way recipes from the time of the disaster would have been written: by hand, on scrap paper, in somebody’s grandmother’s handwriting.

And if anyone ever says you’re moving as slow as molasses in January, you can smartly respond, “So this is what 35 miles per hour feels like!”

See more of these drawings from Recipe for Disaster: The Great Molasses Flood by Andrew Einspruch and Scott Fraser (published by EPS as part of the Making Connections series) on Scott Fraser’s Live Journal blog.

February 24, 2008 - Posted by | Death, History | , , ,

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