Skulls on Parchment

We each day dig our graves with our teeth, the writer Samuel Smiles has said, but the connection between food and death isn't all about cholesterol reports and anti-meat manifestos. Food, in one form or another, has also figured in comas, in cold-blooded murders, and in the sinking of a submarine. This list takes a larger bite out of the food-and-death connection by collecting five instances where food and death combined in ways unheard of before.

(Because we don't want this list to be too depressing, we'll start off with a case that doesn't actually end in death.)

Soy Sauce
Credit: Pixabay

1. A Coma and a Quart of Soy Sauce

You may not know it, but soy sauce can be the death of you. A 19-year-old student from Virginia ended up in the hospital after drinking a quart of soy sauce. The teenager, who knocked back the salty liquid on a dare, slipped into coma shortly after the stunt. He remained unconscious for three days.

Essentially, he had overdosed on sodium. He ended up with too much salt in his blood. The recommended daily allowance for sodium intake is around 2 grams for adults. A quart of soy sauce contains about 160 grams of salt.

To save him, emergency room workers had to give him sugar water through a nasal tube. They pumped 1.5 gallons (6 liters) of the solution into him in 30 minutes. Brown goo came out of his nose while they did it, but after five hours his sodium levels evened out.

The doctor who handled the situation credited the hospital's urgent, no-nonsense approach in bringing down the patient's sodium levels. "We were more aggressive than had been reported before in terms of bringing his sodium back down to a safer range," he told the popular website LiveScience. In the past, sodium overdoses were handled with kid gloves. Salt was flushed out of the body slowly, as rapid correction of the condition led to many cases of brain damage and death.

The radical procedure allowed the patient to recover in no time. He returned to school a month after the incident. (He was doing well, according to reports.) He was the first person known to have survived a salt overdose without complications. (He responded well to therapy, even though his brain showed signs of minor trauma in the first few days after he woke up.) Aggressive fluid adjustment to control a patient's sodium levels was also unheard of before his case.

Fast Facts: When a person has too much salt in his blood, he's said to be suffering from hypernatremia. If left unchecked, hypernatremia can induce shrinkage, bleeding, and water loss in the body's organs (osmosis forces water out of the tissues and into the blood in cases of electrolyte imbalance). Hypernatremia is often seen in psychiatric patients who can't stop eating salty foods. Inadequate water intake can also lead to hypernatremia.

Chinese Noodles

2. A Cerebral Hemorrhage and a Meal of Noodles

Celebrity chef Miki Nozawa died of severe head trauma after a fight that reportedly started over a meal of noodles. Nozawa, 57, died after confronting two men who had earlier refused to pay their bill. The bill was a pocket-shattering $25, but for the two men the price of the meal wasn't the issue. They thought Nozawa's cooking wasn't worth a penny, so they left the victim's restaurant in a hurry. When the chef caught up with them later on and demanded payment, the duo supposedly beat him up until he was unconscious. Nozawa died in the hospital.

The two men, aged 50 and 36, were not arrested. The lack of evidence prevented the authorities from issuing a warrant. Nozawa's sister, based in Berlin, told the German paper Sylt Rundschau that the police might be hiding something. "It almost felt as if they would protect someone," she said.

Nozawa's ex, meanwhile, was quick to play the race card. "We have heard that the men wanted to get back their ten euros for the food," she said. "We see this as a racist act." She claimed that the victim had been called a "gook," among other racist gibes. "My ex-husband was not aggressive, he would never have started a fight."

Famous for his Japanese-Italian fusion dishes, Nozawa hit the big time in Berlin and at the Billionaire Club in Sardinia, Italy. He then moved to the luxurious island of Sylt (in northern Germany), where he sadly met his end.

Fast Facts: Momofuku Ando invented the instant noodle and the cup noodle. He also founded the Nissin Food Products Company. When he died in 2007, he was symbolically sent into space at a ceremony attended by thousands. He had improved space travel by inventing a noodle soup that could be enjoyed at zero gravity.

Credit: Frank C. Muller

3. An Amputation and a Shrimp

Food rarely fights back, but in the case of one Taiwanese woman, death came in the hands--or rostral teeth--of that day's dinner.

59-year old Mrs. Tsai was planning to cook some shrimp, but one of the crustaceans jumped out of the sink as she was cleaning the bunch. She picked up the shrimp, but the animal stung her right leg before she could catch it. The resulting wound was small, hardly noticeable, so she just grabbed some iodine solution for the sting and thought no more of the matter. The wayward shrimp ended in the pot.

Her troubles began 12 hours later. Her right leg stiffened, swelled up, and became unbearably painful. Her family had to rush her to the hospital. There, the doctors identified the infection, and immediately performed an amputation.

The amputation didn't save her, however. The infection went on to spread throughout her body, and she died less than two months after dining on shrimp. Her death was put down to septic shock, multiple organ failure, and necrotizing fasciitis (or flesh-eating bacteria syndrome). The main cause of infection was Vibrio vulnificus, a species of marine bacteria related to Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera. Aeromonas hydrophila, another nasty species of marine bacteria, was also found in her blood.

Fast Facts: When you eat shrimp, you're ingesting organic, harmless forms of arsenic. Vitamin C can convert these forms into highly toxic poisons. Taking the vitamin after dining on shrimp will not immediately kill you, however. A constant diet of shrimp (or any seafood) coupled with megadoses of the vitamin taken over a long period of time can lead to chronic arsenic exposure, which in turn can result to cancer.

Credit: Lukas Lahoda

4. Two Murders and a Meatball Sandwich

Vernon Davis, Brian Austin, and 16-year-old Kareem Gilbert were fooling around when things got out of hand. An angry Austin hit Gilbert in the head with a meatball sandwich. Gilbert, in return, shot Austin. Davis, for his part, ran for his life.

Ruben Jordan, Gilbert's father, then came into the picture. He didn't want anyone testifying against his son, so he tracked down Davis and killed him.

When police caught up with Gilbert, he was initially booked for both murders. The police, however, found a glob of spit at the second crime scene. DNA analysis confirmed that it was Jordan's. Jordan, through a lawyer, denied any connection to the crime. The area was his 'hood, he said, and he spat around a lot. He then pointed to his son as the real murderer.

Gilbert was charged for both murders, but a druggie named Kenneth Heard told police that Gilbert didn't kill Davis. He'd met another druggie who told him about the murder, although he couldn't remember the man's name.

Heard's poor memory frustrated investigators, but TV saved the day when Heard saw Jordan in the news. Jordan was caught stealing TVs from a Laundromat. Heard recognized him at once.

The case was finally put to rest when Gilbert testified against his father. Father and son are now in jail, serving long sentences. Megan Shanahan, the prosecutor who handled the case, summed everything up nicely. "All over getting smacked with a meatball sandwich," she said.

Fast Facts: Contrary to popular belief, the Earl of Sandwich didn't invent the sandwich. Arabs were already stuffing meat into pita bread long before the Earl thought of doing the same. The Earl only lent the sandwich its name.

Fresh Potatoes

5. A Sunken Submarine and a Hail of Flying Potatoes

"The Maine Potato Episode" began when the American destroyer O'Bannon picked up a blip on the radar. The blip turned out to be a large Japanese submarine. The submarine was cruising on the surface. At first the captain of the O'Bannon wanted to ram the vessel, but in the end he decided against it. The submarine could be a mine layer, so the ship was turned at the last moment to avoid a collision. The two vessels ended up sailing side by side.

On the deck of the submarine, Japanese sailors slept. They were wearing shorts and hats, like tourists. When they woke up, they got the surprise of their lives. No one expects to wake up to the sight of an American destroyer staring you in the face, so the Japanese were understandably shocked. They stared at the ship, unable to do anything. The Americans stared back at them.

The most awkward stare down in the history of naval warfare continued for a while. The O'Bannon was too close to the submarine to do anything. Also, no sailor on either deck had a gun. Everyone just gave everybody else the evil eye, until at length the Japanese remembered the 3-inch deck gun that came with their submarine. They ran for it, intending to rain bullets over the Americans, but the Americans beat their enemies to the draw by showering them with potatoes.

A potato battle followed. The Japanese mistook the potatoes for hand grenades, so they tried their best to throw the potatoes back at the Americans. The deck gun was forgotten. In those tense moments nothing else mattered but flying potatoes. The episode might have happened with old-time banjo music playing in the background, but no one knows for sure.

The commotion gave O'Bannon time to maneuver. The destroyer moved away from the enemy vessel and proceeded to fire away. The submarine's conning tower was hit. Later on, it was revealed that the submarine sank.

Fast Facts: You've read about the USS O'Bannon's potato-throwing stunt, but why is the event called "The Maine Potato Episode?" The name actually comes from a plaque commemorating the event. The plaque is in the O'Bannon, near the crew's mess hall. It came from The Association of Potato Growers of Maine.