Friday, January 16, 2009

Too Much Molasses

Because I've been on an early 20th century bender with my grandma's postcard collection, my old home town, and World War I cookbooks, this World War I era industrial accident seems like the next logical installment to my reading: Molasses, Waist Deep.

Ninety years ago today, a 50-foot tall vat of molasses collapsed suddenly in the North End of Boston, sending a 15-foot tidal wave of syrup into the streets....In the end 21 people lost their lives, crushed or asphyxiated by the most common form of sweetener in the United States at the time. Most were ordinary laborers. Several of the bodies were too battered and glazed to be properly identified. Nearly 200 other Bostonians were injured in the catastrophe. Of the 20 horses that perished in the molasses wave, several had to be shot because they could not be extracted from the goo.

United States Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the faulty vat, tried to blame the accident on anarchist saboteurs, an accusation that would have been plausible if the tank had not been famously defective to those who lived and worked in its vicinity. Though it was less than four years old when it gave way, the vat had been hastily assembled in 1915 to facilitate the production of industrial alcohol. With the United States escalating it munitions shipments to Britain, Canada and France, USIA and its Boston subsidiary, the Purity Distilling Company, stood to gather enormous profits so long as the war endured; facing competition from major weapons manufacturers like du Pont, Aetna and Hercules, however, USIA needed a tank of its own in Boston, and the ill-fated Commercial Street project was the result.

So that's why Frances Lowe Smith had to find substitutes for sugar and molasses.


OfTroy said...

I was thinking about the great molasses disaster today (i had thought about blogging about it.. but missed the deadline again!)

Michael Pollan, in his book Botany of Desire spoke of those who refused to use sugar because they thought it 'corrupt'--it was the product of slavery, and the base for alcohol--Many states required homesteaders to plant fruit trees, (and so Jonny Appleseed planted apples trees ahead of the settlers, so when they arrived, he had apple trees to sell and many used concentrated apple juice as a sugar substitute (and those not so religious fermented the juice for hard cider, and apple jack!)

(but sometimes, i think molasses is just the right sweetener!--its a staple in my kitchen)

Rebecca Clayton said...

Hmmm....This was the first time I'd heard of this particular industrial accident. I also wasn't aware that molasses was the most widely used sweetener in 1919 USA.

It's interesting isn't it? Sweeteners used to be expensive and precious; now they're cheap thickening agents for cheap processed food.

(I really enjoyed Botany of Desire, too.)

Sherry said...

I just the other day ran across the fact that Johnny Appleseed was an astute business man who made quite a bit of money. Now here it shows up again. My childhood reading would have convinced me he was some colonial Tom Bombadil, spreading largess and good will.

I did NOT know that homesteaders were required to plant fruit trees.

I also just the other day wrote a poem about Rebecca Boone munching on an apple as she stood on Big Hill and gazed over into the New Eden that was Kentucky. I might have been more accurate than I realized. Not that Kentuckians were required to plant trees but they may have desired to do so. The poem was inspired by a story that Rebecca's son-in-law planted an apple orchard when they moved on to Missouri.

Come to think of it, it was in my researching on that that I ran across the info about Appleseed. I was looking for varieties that might be historically accurate. Wound up using Northern Spy and Summer Winesap because I found them on a heritage list and because they fit my rhyme scheme.

What the research reminded me was how many varieties of apple that I remember from my youth have disappeared under the barrage of Gala and Fiji that are about all you can find at Kroger these days.

As for molasses, we used to prefer sorghum above all other. It was wonderful on hot buttered biscuits and it's good in cookies and ginger bread. But I was actually a refined sugar baby.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I just had Kentucky sorghum molasses for the first time this past summer, and it's great, especially on biscuits. I had to go back to blackstrap molasses for cooking, though. That sorghum molasses is too delicate for my unsophisticated palate.

According to Botany of Desire, Johnny Appleseed's intention was planting apples for cider, not for munching, because all the modern apples for eating are propagated by grafting. Pippins, grown from seed, are a genetic crap shoot, and seldom make a tasty apple.

You can, apparently, make cider from any old apple. Michael Pollan's book certainly explained the apples here on our ridge for me. We have dozens of apple trees, but not one that tastes good, raw or cooked. It turns out the last person to farm this ridge, my neighbor's dad, was a committed cider maker. His grape vines and cherry trees were also meant for fermentation.

Eating apples rather than drinking apples is supposedly a product of Prohibition.