Our relationship with food is complex – we love it, hate it, overindulge in it, deprive ourselves of it. Whether we see it as a pleasure or a curse, we all have an opinion about it. The Internet is stuffed with blogs about bacon, cup cakes and capons. With food fads and fashions and freakish diets – recipes for unachievable weight loss that may even lead to disaster.
And that’s just what food has proved to be for some. From the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, food has been the cause of many deaths in film, in literature and indeed in life. Far from life imitating art, with food it’s often the other way around. For every fictional death by espresso machine or garlic canapé there’s a real life death by cocoa or carrot. Yes, really!
La Grande Bouffe, a classic film from 1973, sees a group of friends get together with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Distributed in the UK as ‘Blow Out’, its comic depictions of sex and gluttony were highly controversial. Nevertheless, whether deliberately or not, some of the crowned heads of Europe have equalled, even surpassed, that level of gormandise. Take our own dear Henry I, for example, said to have died after stuffing himself with lampreys, his favourite food. His tastes appear somewhat peculiar, since lampreys are an extremely ugly, primitive fish that feed on the blood, body fluids and muscles of bigger fish. Thankfully, they’re not something we’re likely to find at the fish counter in Waitrose.
Fast forward to 1771 for yet another monarch setting a bad example. Remembered by Swedish schoolchildren as ‘the king who eat himself to death’, Adolf Frederick died after scoffing an enormous dinner. If the lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne didn’t do the damage, then maybe the pudding was the coup de grâce. Greedy Adolf finished his meal with Selma, his favourite food – a sweet spiced bun, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, served with hot milk. Nice. But fourteen bowls of the stuff! No wonder he didn’t make it to 1772.
Perhaps these monarchs brought misfortune on themselves, but that’s hardly true of the victims of London’s Great Beer Flood. Though maybe there are worse ways to die. Death by carrot or death by beer? No contest, I’d say. The tragedy happened at a brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road on October 17th, 1814. Some huge vats ruptured, sending a wave of beer gushing into the streets, destroying homes and a nearby pub. Nine people died but, although the Meux Brewery was prosecuted, no one was held responsible. An early example of the need for a corporate manslaughter law.
The Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919 gave a whole new meaning to the saying ‘meeting a sticky end’. On an unseasonably hot day in January, a storage tank exploded, sending a wall of molasses coursing through part of Boston, Massachusetts. Between 8 and 15 ft high, travelling at around 35 mph, it killed 21 and injured 150. The force flung people and horses into the air, hurled a truck into Boston Harbour, snapped the girders of the elevated railway and swept buildings off their foundations. People were ensnared in the sticky mess as if they were flies on flypaper.
If that could form the plot of a zany horror movie, death by carrot sounds downright silly. But this unassuming vegetable, generally considered to be good for you, can in fact turn out to be lethal. And not just in implausible fiction. Perhaps the craziest carrot death is that in the opening scene of the movie, ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ when Clive Owen brings down the baddie with a stick of carrot. Less well known is the sad case of Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food enthusiast. Having swallowed excessive amounts of vitamin A and drunk ten gallons of carrot juice, he ended up bright orange. And dead. So be sensible – stick to your five a day.
Of course, most crime related to food is fictional. Not to be outdone by the vegetables, meat also figures in these tales. Fish too. There’s the infamous Roald Dahl story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where a wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, swiftly defrosts it, roasts it and serves it up to the investigating constabulary. A great way to destroy the evidence. There’s a similar idea in an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Here the weapon was a frozen fish, which, after it had served its purpose, was served for lunch.
Although the murderer is generally unmasked in the end, the primary aim in detective fiction is to fool the reader. Which leads to some truly ingenious plots. Like cleverly using the victim’s own weakness to engineer death by anaphylactic shock. Strictly speaking not all allergies are food related – bees are not food, not in Europe anyway. Honey is though, and so are peanuts. Ruth Rendell used a bee sting in ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’, as did H.F. Heard in ‘A Taste of Honey’ and Julie Parsons in ‘The Courtship Gift’. In ‘If Looks could Kill’, Kate White used peanut butter.
In that case the victim didn’t die; such deaths are not that easy to pull off, even in a book. So a word of advice – don’t try this at home. As to that death by garlic canapé, I cheated. The victim was a vampire. And the unfortunate who met her death at the espresso machine? She was fictional too and she was electrocuted, not scalded or smothered by coffee. However, truth is stranger than fiction. In 1975, in the charmingly named Peachtree City, Georgia, two kitchen workers thought it might be fun to throw cocoa power at each other. The room was small. The powder got in their lungs. They died. But don’t let that put you off your hot chocolate – unless of course you’re in the habit of inhaling it!
© Clodagh Phelan, October 2010 – this article first appeared in Issue 4 of Eat Me Magazine