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The President, the Pretzel, and Mama Cass

For conspiracy buffs, the truth is hard to swallow.

11:01 PM, Jan 21, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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THERE ARE a great many obvious reasons to be thankful the president is alive and well and not another victim of death-by-choking. But one lesser reason to rejoice is that, had things taken a turn for the worse, we would never have heard the end of it from conspiracy buffs. Think about it. Even with the president fully recovered, the White House continues to cover up the brand of pretzel. Was it Snyder's of Hanover or Rold Gold? All we know is that the pretzel (from the Latin "pretiola," meaning "little reward") was large, hard, and bow-tie shaped.

It is a Sunday night. The president is watching football when suddenly a chunk of pretzel goes down the wrong way, causing a reaction known as vasovagal syncope. The vagus nerve causes a lowering of his heart rate, which leads to his fainting. As he falls, his glasses bruise his cheek. Seconds later he comes to. And the only eyewitnesses are his dogs, Spot and Barney. Luckily, that was the end of it. But had the accident been fatal, Bush would have joined history's most famous choking victims, all of whom are shrouded in a veil of conspiracy, fodder for shows like "Unsolved Mysteries" and "In Search Of."

Take for example the 1974 death of Mama Cass, singer in the folk-rock band The Mamas and the Papas. One minute she's savoring a delicious ham sandwich, the next, she's lying on the floor, having choked to death. Or did she? A coroner's report later stated she died of heart failure in the bedroom. But was the heart attack brought on by her choking on a sandwich while she was lying down? Some people claim it was a chicken bone that killed her. Others point out that Mama was Jewish (born Ellen Naomi Cohen) and didn't eat pork--instead claiming it was a lettuce sandwich. A lettuce sandwich? Of all the indignities, choking on a sandwich that doesn't even have meat! And imagine if she choked on the guiltiest of all pleasures: the fried chicken-skin sandwich (fried chicken skin, mayonnaise, and white bread). That would have been cause for a cover-up.

The sad fact is Mama Cass died of a massive heart attack in an apartment in London (coincidentally, the same apartment where Who drummer Keith Moon would die from an overdose four years later). Doctors found no food in her trachea. But because of her weight, the sandwich worked its way into the legend.

Another choking incident surrounded by mystery involves John Bonham, the drummer of Led Zeppelin. After about 40 shots of vodka, Bonham passed out and choked--on his own vomit. Nevertheless, a rumor spread that Bonham, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant had all entered into a blood pact with the devil. In the midst of a Satanic ritual, the rumor said, Bonham was killed--by decapitation.

And then there's the death of one of the great bandleaders of all time, Tommy Dorsey, in 1956. After a hearty meal, Dorsey retired, and in his sleep, choked on what one newspaper called "food particles." Others say he simply overate and suffocated.

In 1955, the father of Bebop, saxophonist Charlie Parker, aka The Bird, passed away. NPR's Alex Chadwick says Parker's death remains "mysterious": He had been watching television, "began laughing, then he started choking, and collapsed." What program was Parker watching? "The Tommy Dorsey Show."

But back to the pretzels. If in fact Bush was eating the large and hard type, Rold Gold (a subsidiary of Frito Lay) can be eliminated as a suspect. Rold Gold sells pretzel sticks, pretzel thins, and "sourdough nuggets" pretzels, but nothing large and hard. I begin to sense a Hanoverian plot. But Snyder's vice president for human resources, John Bartman, tells me he doubts it's them. "I've heard it wasn't us. That the pretzels in question were circular with spokes coming out--we don't make those." Bartman was nonetheless concerned when he first heard the news: "The first thing I did was call the White House to find out if it was us. But the liaison's office said that they didn't know and that if they did know, they wouldn't tell me." Bartman has already fielded about 40 calls because of the incident. "We're just glad the president is okay and that he is snacking healthily."

Aboard Air Force Once, Bush jokingly gave a bag of pretzels to reporters. Could this bag offer hints? According to one reporter on the plane, the large bag was clear and without product labels: "Written on the bag in Sharpie ink was something to the effect of 'chew carefully,'" he said. And so, as with many choking incidents throughout history, we may never know the whole story. All we know is that the president is back on his feet and promises to chew his food more carefully. That and the fact that Snyder's of Hanover is the leading seller of pretzels in supermarkets nationwide.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.