Monday, January 15, 2007

Too much Molasses.

Today, January 15th …

A storage tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded in Boston on this day in 1919, killing 21 people and injuring more than 150 others. The cause of the explosion was never fully determined, but was no doubt a combination of circumstances - an unexpectedly warm day causing a sudden increase in fermentation and hence a rapid rise in pressure in a poorly constructed and over-filled tank.

The explosion sent sheets of metal and debris hurtling outwards with sufficient force to slice through the girders of the nearby elevated railway. A tide of molasses spewed out and poured through the streets in a wave up to 15 feet (4.5 m) high at a speed of 35 mph (56 kph), knocking buildings off their foundations and proving impossible to outrun. The complexity of the clean-up is hard to imagine, even with the aid of photographs of the disaster. Eventually salt water from Boston harbour was pumped into the town to flush the streets, but it took many months to remove the sticky mess – and locals say you can still smell the molasses on some days.

Molasses, blackstrap molasses, treacle, and golden syrup are all by-products of sugar refining – and they essentially the same thing, the only variation, as they say, being in the details. Once, they were all referred to as ‘treacle’ (from an old word meaning an antidote to poison) - as they still are in Britain. In the Americas, the Portuguese word for honey – melaço, was adapted to become molasses, in another example of the separation of the two countries by their common language.

When sugar cane is crushed, the resulting juice is boiled several times to evaporate off the pure sugar which then crystallises. The liquid remaining from the first boiling – which is still very sweet – is what is called ‘Golden Syrup’ in Britain, or ‘Light Molasses’ in America. A second boiling produces a darker, more bitter but only slightly less sweet syrup called ‘treacle’ (or ‘black treacle’) in Britain and ‘molasses’ (or dark molasses) in America. A third boiling produces the very dark, bitter ‘blackstrap’ molasses beloved only of cattle and those enthusiasts who believe it a ‘health-food’.

Molasses was once the primary sweetener in the USA, and early American cookbooks are full of recipes using it as an ingredient. Here is a very healthy-sounding recipe for Boston Brown Bread from Everyday Foods in War Time, by Mary Swartz Rose, Assistant Prof of Nutrition at the Teachers College, Columbia University, published the year before the disaster.

War Time Boston Brown Bread

Rye meal, 1 cup
Corn meal, 1 cup
Finely ground oatmeal, 1 cup
Milk, 1½ cups
Soda, ¾ teaspoon
Salt, 1 teaspoon
Molasses, 1 cup
Baking powder, 2 teaspoons.

Mix and sift dry ingredients, add molasses and milk, stir until well mixed, turn into a well-greased mold, and steam three and one-half hours. The cover should be greased before being placed on mold. The mold should never be filled more than two-thirds full. A one-pound baking powder box makes the most attractive shaped loaf for steaming; place mold on a trivet in kettle containing boiling water, allowing water to come half-way up around mold; cover closely and steam, adding as needed more boiling water. One cup chopped peanuts and 1 cup of cut dates may be added.

Tomorrow’s Story …


Risotto à la Milanaise.

Quotation for the Day …


It's hard to imagine a single food that can be more aptly described as the essential ingredient than sugar. From a Tate & Lyle packet.

3 comments:

Stephanie said...

What an amazing story... it's not April 1 is it??? And thanks for the rug site recommendation ... I'm becoming increasingly interested in Middle Eastern rugs. Wish I could afford some of the beautiful ones I've seen.

Nene Adams said...

My grandmother used an empty coffee can to steam her Bosto brown bread. It made an attractive round loaf. She also used to put snipped raisins in it. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Love the website/ blog, never seen it before. It will take my mind off the cold as I search for my new foodie role in London.