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How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

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Gas lines are currently stretched across New Jersey and other states hit by Hurricane Sandy. If you're struggling to find a place to fill up, you might be asking yourself this very question, which we originally posted last year.

It’s a question that plagues every driver: Just how far can you drive with your car’s “fuel empty” light illuminated? The detailed answer depends on all sorts of variables like the age and model of your car, how much weight you’re carrying, and what kind of driving you’re doing.

The more fun answer is “Find out the hard way!” Justin Davis runs a site called TankOnEmpty.com that lets drivers record just how far they’ve driven certain types of cars after their empty lights came on. You can poke around and see how your car has fared. The results are a little less than scientific, though. Even for a car with a large number of data points, the estimates aren’t super-precise. The Honda Civic, for example, has 248 entries and an average range of 44.38 miles after the light comes on, but the standard deviation of the data is almost 24 miles.

Of course, the major question in play asks when the car’s fuel light comes on in the first place. Sure, driving conditions and number of passengers will affect your car’s range after the light comes on, but if you can pinpoint how much gas is left in the tank when the warning appears, you can at least ballpark what sort of range you’ve got left.

Click and Clack of Car Talk fame have estimated that most cars’ “empty” lights come on once the gas level dips below an eighth of a tank or so, but they have also advocated driving until the light comes on, then immediately stopping to fill all the way up, and then comparing how much fuel your car took with the tank’s capacity published in your owner’s manual. Once you repeat this process a few times, you should have a pretty good estimate of how much gas is left.

If you’re a bit more daring, you can always try the tactic consumer reporter John Stossel employed for a 2008 piece for ABC’s 20/20. Stossel got behind the wheel of his minivan and drove until he ran out of gas. He ended up making it 65 miles after his gas dial claimed the car was empty, including 40 miles after his van’s computerized estimate of its remaining fuel range hit zero.

What about you? Have you ever pushed the limits of your car’s tank, like Cosmo Kramer did on that Seinfeld episode?

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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