During the Second World War, prisoners held by the Japanese in an internment camp in Dutch Indonesia subsisted primarily on dry bread they made themselves in a camp bakery. But when their captors stopped supplying them with yeast, it became impossible to keep making the bread — until some of the inmates who were trained chemists figured out it was possible to use urine as a yeast substitute.
In the video above, Pieter Wiederhold, who was held in the camp as a boy with his father, discusses this urine bread. He gives a longer account of it in his book, The Soul Conquers:
Our bread was baked in ovens in the camp kitchen. This task required a large staff of kitchen personnel that came mostly from the Chinese contingent, many of whom were former restaurant cooks. The bread was as tasteful as one could expect considering the few ingredients that were available. After a few months the Japanese stopped supplying the needed yeast, so bread could no longer be made. This meant that the available flour could only be used to make a kind of unappetizing gruel or we would get extra oebi or ketella.
The absence of bread was most disappointing. Some creating chemists in our camp got together to think about an alternative way to make yeast. After much discussion and some experimentation, they came up with a solution. They would make yeast using urine. When I heard about it I was surprised but not particularly disturbed. After all, I had eaten frogs and lizards that had been cooked in our soup and I had drunk filthy water from a toilet on the train. Why would it kill me if I ate bread that was made with yeast derived from urine? When he heard about it Father smiled. "As long as I have something to eat to stay alive," he said.
In order to provide the entire camp with bread, a large volume of urine was needed every day. A number of large drums were placed in several locations around the camp and each carried a sign:
"Do your Duty. Think of the yeast factory.
By 8:00 AM we must have at least two
full drums or there will be
no bread tomorrow."
Some internees were given the job of collecting the filled urine drums and replacing them with empty ones. They made the rounds using a two-wheeled cart with handlebars like the one I had used for my moving tasks in the women's camp. The drums were taken to the bread kitchen where they were put on large wood-burning firest to cook. Nitrogen had to be kept inside the urine, which was then transformed to ureum, which in turn converts to ammonia carbonate. The nitrogen was then removed. The resulting residue could be used as a substitute for yeast. The project was directed by someone who we called the "chief urinist."
The first time I received my allocated piece of this bread I was pleasantly surprised. It did not look much different from the way it was before, and bringing it to my nose I did not detect any unusual smell. It tasted OK, although we were so hungry that almost everything seemed palatable. The uniqueness soon wore off and no one gave it any further thought. The bread was baked in this manner throughout the rest of our internment in Cimahi.
The secret is ammonium carbonate, formed when the urea in stale urine combines with water. It can be distilled, as the Dutch internees found, in a simple cooking pot. Ammonium carbonate decomposes to form ammonia and carbon dioxide, and it's these gases that cause the pockets or bubbles of air that make the dough rise. When the dough is then baked, the air pockets set, giving the bread its soft and spongy texture.
Back in 1989, Coppin State College in Baltimore started a program designed to teach kids critical thinking skills -- how to "formulate meaningful questions, identify pertinent data and determine fallacies and biases." It did this by having the kids examine and discuss "weird facts" and weird news stories. Perhaps Chuck's work was on the curriculum. (link: Google News)
The picture shows teacher Tom Payne teaching the kids some weird facts. I don't know what happened to the program. It doesn't seem to exist anymore. In its place, we should try to make Weird Universe mandatory reading in all high schools.
Chuck's Weekly Cite-Seeing Tour The Crème de la Crème, Every Monday
Hand-Picked and Lightly Seasoned by Chuck Shepherd
February 27, 2012
(datelines from February 17 or later) (links correct as of February 27)
Hong Kong: The Guizhentang pharmaceutical company is looking to expand (by 3x) the size of its bear-bile-farming operation. Bear bile is thought to be a magic curative for many illnesses (and according to the farmers, bears couldn't be prouder to give it up) (sedated) (with long-ass syringes). New York Times
San Francisco: The state Administrative Office of the Courts is collecting demographic data on all judges in the state, to encourage diversity in the selection of 50 new ones. (But they can't ask about "sexual orientation," can they?) (Yes.) The Weekly Standard
Columbia Heights, Minn.: A cop noticed that Eric King, 21, seemed to be shuffling along with the gait of someone 101 rather than 21. (It was that 19-inch TV in his pants, along with remote and power cords, from a shoplifting.) KSTP-TV (St. Paul)
Cayce, S.C.: I know how you and I can make some money! Let's scam an insurance company! Ummm, I'll handle the paperwork, and you . . your job is to let me chop off your hand, OK? WIS-TV (Columbia)
Wasilla, Alaska: Two local artists displayed their sculpture, "Warrior Within," at Wasilla High, but yanked it after three days. It's a pair of shields, surrounded by feathers, and according to people up in Palinville, it looks too much like a hoo-hah [image Completely Safe For Work]. Mat-su Valley Frontiersman (Wasilla)
Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction books such as Elephants on Acid.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.
Chuck is the purveyor of News of the Weird, the syndicated column which for decades has set the gold-standard for reporting on oddities and the bizarre.
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