Lectures for a New Year: Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of iconic books including Blink and The Tipping Point. He has a formula for most of his work: find a core assumption about the world that everyone assumes is correct, then prove that the opposite is actually correct. (For example, in Blink one assumption was that rigorous, detailed study of something like a work of art would lead to the best determination of whether it was a forgery; but it turns out that the best forgery detectors in the world actually operate on gut instinct that happens in a flash...or do they? You see how this works.) This Gladwell Inversion makes for really interesting reading (I thought Blink was terrific), and when he tells anecdotes, it's riveting stuff -- the man is a veritable Teachable Moment Machine, full of stories that lead to lessons. To wrap up our week of TED Talks, here's my favorite Gladwell TED presentation.

In this talk from 2004, Gladwell talks about food. Yeah. Food. And it's frickin' amazing. Here is a 17-minute lecture crammed full of stories about the development of various foods (primarily spaghetti sauces, coffees, and mustards) and what that process of food design tells us about ourselves, our diversity as people, and what actually makes us happy. It's all about the work of Howard Moskowitz, a Psychophysicist who worked on tons of important mass-market foods.

Topics: Howard Moskowitz, looking for the perfect Diet Pepsi(s), zesty pickles, the relative merits of Ragu and Prego, a Dead Tomato's Society, the three classes of spaghetti sauces Americans like, the super-diversity of modern sauce, "the mind knows not what the tongue wants," Grey Poupon as an aspirational mustard, and how coffee clusters can make us happier.

For: everyone. Especially people who eat food.

Further Reading

This one's easy: Gladwell published an essay on this topic called The Ketchup Conundrum and it's online for free (as are lots of his articles -- his website is basically its own Long Reads treasure trove). And of course, there's the Gladwell Trifecta: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Outliers: The Story of Success. If you're really into Gladwell, check out Malcolm Gladwell: Collected.


TED provides an interactive transcript as well as subtitles, downloads with subtitles, and so on.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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

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Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.


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