Sunday, July 31, 2011

Je me souviens

My late friend Cliff Doerksen was the author of The Hope Chest, a Grimm-for-grownups chronicle of people wreaking grotesque forms of havoc and dismembering each other between lunch and supper, early in the 20th century. Not unusual, perhaps, for a fella who grew up with a language which retains words like

tjrepiere: w.v. to die a miserable death (of animals).

He'd have been delighted, I think, by the 50-year-old news I came across recently in JAMA: Quebec has an indigenous beer-drinkers' disease. Great news for some Canadian agency I'm sure:

In a race with Omaha and Louvain for priority? I guess it's big civic business, having a rep for dangerbeer. Reminds me of those gleeful Alps signs that tell you how many people are Todt after trying a climb. Omaha, I regret to inform, has never recovered from the defeat. Anyway, these guys must've come in groaning and clutching themselves, or maybe carried in by les copains, because they were in truly lousy shape:

For those of you who aren't up late with PubMed every night: Apart from the self-explanatory, these guys had shortness of breath; a blue tint to the skin signifying oxygen deprivation (never desirable despite the emo vampires); an enlarged liver; legs and hands so swollen you could leave a finger-dent in them like they were bread dough; a racing heart; an absence of the usual reassuring lub-dub; and low blood pressure. The chemical gobbledygook had to do with damage to and breakdown of one's own muscle.

Furthermore, their thyroids were looking precancerous, their veins were clotted, their guts were all torn up, and their heart muscle tissue looked absolutely like hell. I'll spare you the sarcoplasmic details, but they were gory on the cellular level. In short, they were so badly messed up that half of them died:

You'll note there was full redemption for the survivors. Normally, if you've gotten yourself into a bad way with beer and you lay off the sauce full stop, your odds of recovering -- with the help of heart meds -- aren't bad. Can't put the bottle down? You're likely dead within five years. But these guys kept right on boozing along and got off scot-free. All their nightmarish Quebecois/Omahan/Louvainesque symptoms disappeared. The reason?

The "tireless probing of the Quebec investigators" (here's why Omaha didn't win the title: sloth) determined that they'd been temporarily poisoned by a key ingredient in the beer: cobalt.

Cobalt, the metal used to make that pretty blue glass. (Its name is from kobold, the German for "household goblin".) What fancy footwork led the Quebec investigators to the heavy metal? Pretty simple, really. The parade of the wretched arrived at the Quebec hospitals shortly after local breweries began adding cobalt, and ended when cobalt was taken out of the recipe.

Cobalt was used as a beer foam stabilizer in the 1960s. After all, you didn't want to be sitting around drinking half a case of headless beer. So this was better living through chemistry. These days we have better better living through chemistry; you can credit the clarity of your beer and the creamy excelsior nature of its head to compounds like DRACULAR DARACLAR, a silica additive from the W. C. Grace corporation.  À votre santé.


The Hope Chest, though delightful, was one of just many literary forms of screwing around for Cliff. You can also read his serious book, which he described as "slightly longer than a Hallmark card",  or hear why hotel room service might not be all you'd want in a day job. There's quite a lot of Cliff's writing at the Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago, including the mince-pie history for which he had the good sense to win a 2010 James Beard award, though I'm particularly fond of his roundhousing of this book.