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6 Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items

1. THE BIG BANG THEORY explained by a muffin

IN THE CLASSROOM
Around 13.7 billion years ago, not a single element of the entire known universe existed. There was no space, no matter, no time, no wonderful magazine for knowledge junkies. Then, for an unknown reason, an infinitesimally small point called a singularity started to expand. Boom! That’s the Big Bang. Both blazing hot and unimaginably dense, this tiny point started expanding and cooling, and to this day the universe is still doing both.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître in 1927. Realizing that objects in space were moving farther apart, Lemaître hypothesized that if everything in the universe is now expanding, it originally must have been smaller. His idea: that it all originated from one intensely hot “primeval atom.” While the notion is generally accepted today, not everyone bought into Lemaître’s theory; the Big Bang gets its name from a sarcastic remark made by Fred Hoyle, an astronomer, science fiction novelist, and Big Bang skeptic.

IN THE KITCHEN
Imagine a muffin tin with one cup half-full of blueberry batter (the singularity). Inside this batter are all the building blocks of a blueberry muffin. As the batter’s temperature changes, it begins expanding, just like the universe started expanding with the temperature change of the Big Bang. The blueberries in the batter are analogous to the planets, stars, and other matter, moving right along with the rest of the muffinverse. But they’re not floating at random inside the batter—they’re moving with it, getting farther apart as the muffin bakes. And that muffin? It represents the entirety of the universe. Beyond the edge of the muffin lies a vast abyss of nothingness. All that exists are blueberries, sugar crystals, and, if the baker got a little creative, a hint of nutmeg.

2. Stirring the pot with KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS

IN THE CLASSROOM
When the impressively mustachioed economist John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, it was a watershed moment for modern macro-economic thought. The book launched the revolutionary idea that government spending is the best way to stimulate the economy. In Keynes’s now commonly accepted view, money flows in a circle, meaning one person’s spending provides income for another. In a recession, people slow their spending, thereby slowing someone else’s earning. To grease the cycle, Keynes proposed something radically different from other free market economists—he called on the government to inject money into the economy and kickstart the cycle by “priming the pump.” His argument was that the government should solve economic problems rather than waiting for markets to self correct in the long run because, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

IN THE KITCHEN
A Keynesian cook would be a big fan of risotto, a dish that requires a fair bit of intervention on the part of the cook (the government). Unlike regular rice, which is dumped into a free market pot of boiling water and left to fend for itself, risotto must be regulated. The cook adds ladlefuls of hot stock to a pot, allowing the rice to absorb it. When it begins to dry during a stock recession, he intervenes with another ladleful, refusing to let the free market forces of unregulated Arborio rice dry out and ruin dinner.

3. The bitter taste of OFFSIDES

IN THE CLASSROOM
Every four years, America briefly cheats on football, baseball, and basketball during the FIFA World Cup. Though we refuse to call soccer by its given name, Americans can’t resist the pull of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. But that doesn’t mean we understand it. While the no-hands part is simple enough, the “offside” call is another matter. Basically, offside is all about an offensive player’s position on the field. A player is offside if there aren't two defenders—the goalie is usually one of them—between him and the goal line at the moment the ball is played toward him. (If you draw a line across the field, the player has to be even with the next-to-last defender until the moment when the ball is passed to him.) But as soon as it’s passed, he can race past the defenders to receive it. Being called offside comes with a slight penalty—when a player is whistled, play is stopped, and possession is awarded to the other team. The offside rule exists to make the game more fun—i.e., to make sure players don’t just camp out in front of the goal for an easy score—as well as to confuse those who drop in for quadrennial viewings.

IN THE KITCHEN
Think of an offside call as that unpleasant taste produced when drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. It’s a penalty assessed for getting ahead of yourself. You must drink the orange juice (have the ball passed to you) before brushing your teeth (running past the opponent). If you confuse the order of those things, you’re punished with a mouthful of face-distorting flavor (a whistle from the referee). If you do it in the proper order, though, you stand a good chance of scoring some vitamin C. Important to note: Brushing your teeth and holding a glass of OJ is just fine—you can be in the offside position without being called offside. It’s only when you take a sip that it becomes a penalty.

4. A forkful of STRING THEORY

IN THE CLASSROOM
In Sir Isaac Newton’s day, physicists believed the basic building blocks of all matter looked like tiny, zero-dimensional points (see below). Then, in the 1960s, string theory came along like the Beatles of physics and changed everything. String theory suggests that quarks and electrons, two of the smallest known particles, are actually vibrating strings, some of which are closed loops and some of which are open. This revolutionary idea allowed physicists to consider all four forces of the universe— gravity (the attractive force of an object’s mass), electromagnetism (the push/pull between electrically charged particles), strong interaction (the glue that binds quarks together), and weak interaction (the force responsible for radioactive decay)—as part of a single theory for the first time. And while it sounds small, the idea has the potential to be big. Some believe that string theory will prove to be the elusive “theory of everything,” a yet-to-be-discovered model that solves all of the mysteries about the forces of the universe and answers the most fundamental questions about where the cosmos came from and why it’s so perfectly tuned to support life.

IN THE KITCHEN
Prior to string theory, it was assumed that the smallest pieces of matter were like bowls of dry cereal. But string theory sees them more as big bowls of mismatched pasta. Some of the pasta has two distinct end points (spaghetti) and some is in a loop (SpaghettiOs). A forkful contains several of these strings, just as a proton or neutron is made of several quarks. And unlike dry cereal, which makes sense only with milk, spaghetti can tackle a variety of sauces (forces of the universe). If physicists are right about string theory, the movements exhibited by the pasta can help explain the origin of the universe. And if they’re ultimately wrong, well, the idea’s still delicious.

A Quick Primer on Dimensions
The concept of “zero dimensional” might sound confusing at first. At its most basic, a dimension refers to the minimum number of axes you’d need to identify a particular spot. On a line, you just need one, while in a square you need two. A single point needs zero—there’s only one spot!

Or, in kitchen terms:

0 DIMENSIONAL = a crumb

1 DIMENSIONAL = a toothpick

2 DIMENSIONAL = a sheet of aluminum foil

3 DIMENSIONAL = a loaf of bread

4 DIMENSIONAL (a tesseract) = Tupperware housed inside larger Tupperware
(While a tesseract can’t exactly exist in a three-dimensional plane, its shape is created by three dimensional objects, just like a cube is made of squares and a square is made of lines.)

5. The sticky business of FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

IN THE CLASSROOM
Of all the instruments of financial doom made famous by the crisis of 2008, none is as notorious as the derivative. Broadly defined, a financial derivative is a contract whose value is tied to something else, like a stock, bond, commodity, or currency. The value of the derivative fluctuates with the price of that underlying asset.

For sellers, one common use of derivatives is to hedge, or insure against an adverse outcome. A simplified example: A farmer might lock in a good price for his corn by selling a futures contract. This contract insulates him from risk, in case the market price for corn crashes.

Derivatives can also be used by buyers as bets on the future price of an asset. Consider a speculator who determines corn prices are about to rise dramatically. He buys a futures contract enabling him to buy corn at a low price. When the market soars, he gets to buy the corn at the cheap price guaranteed by his contract and sell it at a profit. However, there’s risk; if he’s wrong and the market price craters, he has to eat the loss.

IN THE KITCHEN
An agreement to sell your brother a jar of peanut butter is the perfect culinary equivalent of a derivative: The jar’s value is based on what’s going on around it. Say you agree to sell him a jar of Skippy in a week for $1. The value of that agreement will change depending on what else is in the pantry. If it’s time to make the transaction and your mom has just bought bread and raspberry preserves, the peanut butter becomes more desirable and the value of the contract to your brother has increased tremendously. It’s a good thing he locked down the low price when he did. If, on the other hand, the sale date arrives and the only thing in the house is celery, the demand for peanut butter may have gone down. In that case, it’s a good thing you decided to sell when you did!

6. 57 varieties of EXISTENTIALISM

IN THE CLASSROOM
Though the philosophical groundwork for existentialism was around during the late 19th century, this line of thought didn’t truly come into its own until the mid-1940s. That’s when French philosopher Gabriel Marcel gave the philosophy a name and Jean-Paul Sartre began saying things like, “Existence precedes essence.” Less rigid than many other philosophical strains, existentialism generally holds that the individual is responsible for giving his own life meaning. Existentialists believe that people should live according to their own consciences instead of by a moral, religious, or cultural code. And the ability to live that authentic life is only achievable when the meaninglessness of existence has been accepted.

IN THE KITCHEN
To understand culinary existentialism, you need only look at a popular but forlorn condiment: ketchup. Everyone knows it, but not as itself. To some it’s a tasty dip for fries, to others a meatloaf ingredient, and, to the British, it’s a pizza topping. In order to live a truly existential existence, ketchup must consider its own desires and not those of the dishes it serves. Only then will ketchup approach an authentic existence.

This article appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Illustrations by Ana Benaroya.

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Warner Home Video
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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