Monday, June 14, 2010

Tapioca Time Bomb

While cooking up some fresh-picked cherries, I dug through the back of the kitchen cabinet until I found some tapioca. Tapioca. Handy to keep around for those summer fruit pies.


Anytime I use it, though, I think about a maritime disaster involving tapioca:


Back in the summer of 1972, a 12-ton freighter was almost sunk by tapioca.

The Swiss freighter Cassarate was sailing along with a load of lumber and rubber in its upper holds when the wood caught fire. With the crew pouring water on it, it smoldered for nearly a month, but evidently no one thought this was enough of a problem to want to pull over.

Finally, the fire got going again, and the crew couldn't douse it, and the ship pulled into the docks in Cardiff, Wales, to get itself put out properly. The good Welsh firefighters gave the flaming timber a thorough hosing down, and the whole thing would have been a complete nonevent except for the other cargo in the lower holds.

All the way from Thailand, 1,500 tons of tapioca. Enough tapioca to fill a million little glass cups with pudding for the dessert case at early-bird buffets.

It had been dry and harmless, down there in the holds of the ship, but with all that water leaking down on it, it started to plump up. And the heat from the fire started to cook it. Heaven knows how many innocent people were overcome by the smell.

The cooking pudding threatened to burst the steel plates of the ship's hull, sinking the ship, fouling Cardiff Bay and endangering the lives of whatever marine life there was in Cardiff Bay in 1972. Can you imagine the horrific scene? The lumpy, glutinous slick? The dead fish? The bedraggled, glossy sea birds, limping around on the sand, too sticky to fly?

They had to get the tapioca out of the ship before it burst, but there was still all that smoking timber on top of it that would have to come out first. Could they unload the ship before it ruptured?

"It's like a huge tapioca time bomb," said a fire chief, stringing together words that had surely never been next to each other in all the previous history of the English language.

As firefighters and dock workers labored for three days to save the freighter, many questions were going unanswered. Why hadn't the ship docked sooner when the crew wasn't able to put the fire out? Why wasn't the lower hold watertight against the flooding of the upper hold? And what the hell were they going to do with several hundred truckloads of salvaged tapioca pudding? Stucco Cardiff Castle?

In the end, the crisis was averted. The firemen finally put the fire out completely, and now that it was off the stove, so to speak, the tapioca had stopped growing and threatening to overwhelm the ship and, possibly, the entire city, resulting in unimaginable loss of life and appetite.

The load of timber and rubber, which had been on its way to the U.K., was kind of crispy when they finally got it all off the boat. As for the tapioca, "It seems to have subsided but we don't know what condition it is in," a cautious spokesman for the South Wales Fire Service told the American press. Constables were no doubt standing by, prepared at any moment to control the unstable pudding with large cans of diced pineapple.

"It is bound for Rotterdam," said the spokesman, "and the Dutch will have to decide whether it can still be used or scrapped."

I'm guessing they threw a little cocoa in it and no one was any the wiser. Discount tapioca! Slightly imperfect! Bits of damp charcoal are good for you!


Either that, or somewhere in Holland is a windmill built on scrapioca, which makes very questionable fill.

The Welsh firefighters, I hope, were treated for starch inhalation and sent home to recover. The damaged Cassarate, which had behaved more like a casserole, prepared to press on to Rotterdam with a belly full of slightly overcooked and waterlogged pudding.


[Source - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08017/849985-151.stm ]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If only the after hold had some 55-gallon drums of vanilla...

'74