Tuesday, January 30, 2007

#102 - Algebra and Aloo Mutter

Algebra and Aloo Mutter

12/31/06 (#102)

Hailing from New England, I was raised on a diet of casseroles, shepherds pie and various one-pan assemblages that fit squarely under the heading, "Comfort food"---a culinary category that, despite its simplicity, is rarely mastered by restaurant chefs. Some try to dress it up, others make too much effort to dress it down, and usually, I leave such dining experiences missing Maine, my Mom in particular.

I've found that the best way to satisfy a craving for comfort food is not to visit some faux-New England eatery, but instead stop at an Indian restaurant. Almost every item on an Indian restaurant menu is a saucy, curried variation of my gastronomic heritage. (With one notable exception: Indian food is unspoiled by that spongy, dirt-flavored filler known as the mushroom. Any cuisine that recognizes the true value of the mushroom---and consequently leaves it out completely---is good eating in my eyes.) If I had to limit my dietary intake to a single region of the world, India would get the contract. (Of course, I base this on the Indian food available here in the States. Before I commit to this nutritional hypothetical, I would want to be certain that the dinner scene featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was fabricated---"Monkey brain" and "live snakes" are two of only a few dishes in the world that could have me asking, "Um, do you have any mushrooms?")

I like the vegetarian meals most, primarily because chicken---when presented in a sauce---can be a dicey entree. Not only must one gamble with white meat vs. dark meat (both enjoyable, though hardly interchangeable), but depending on the chef there may be tendons and cartilage and who knows what else. I know that in some countries tendons are considered edible---they're actually on the menu at a Thai restaurant near my office---but if I bite into a meal that includes even a tiny chunk of unexpected rubbery resistance, I inevitably chew the rest of the meal with slow-motion suspicion, not so much enjoying it as enduring it. (Texture issues have a significantly larger impact on my diet than my taste buds: there is no flavor delectable enough to make adjectives like "slippery", "rubbery" or "sea urchin-esque" tolerable.) Vegetables remove these variables from the eating experience---since there is no part of the pea or the potato that is better than another, it is a much more relaxing meal.

That's why I like aloo mutter. Like most of the dishes offered at my local Indian restaurant, it's a soupy stew of deliciousness, free of textural surprises, consisting mostly of peas, potatoes, and whatever it is that makes up the soupy stew. (Since it's blended, and doesn't contain mushrooms, I really don't care what it is as long as it's delicious.)

Were it not so delicious, I would never order aloo mutter. While my northeast accent will sometimes slip into remission, certain words cause inevitable flare-ups: Pop Tarts (pop rhymes with yup, and tarts seems to contain several h's but no r's), quarter (the syllable that follows the percussive K is like a culvert catching the tire of a car, and the word crashes headlong into a sludge of south Boston unintelligibility), and, I self-consciously notice every time I order it, aloo mutter, which inevitably sounds like I'm about to break into a round of Allen Sherman's "Hello Mudda! Hello Fadda!" I asked the woman behind the counter if I was pronouncing it correctly, and she looked back at me like a clerk at a porn store would respond to the question, "To which food group do those edible panties belong?" Realizing I was earnest in my inquiry, she grumpily mumbled, "I knew what you meant." Great news, but it didn't answer my question---I was asking in hopes that I could come here regularly without being known to the staff as 'that funny-sounding white guy.' Either she didn't understand, or she didn't want to be known to the staff as 'that one who made the funny-sounding white guy not funny.' I took my food and thanked her for her help.

Back at my desk at work, I popped the plastic top on my gourmet $4.35 meal and stabbed in a spoon---Delicious. But when I looked at the divot left by the utensil, I realized that I had a horribly disproportionate meal---if you imagine a bowl of aloo mutter and rice as the earth, and cut it in half, the rice occupied all of the area of the cross-cut labeled as "core", "mantle", and "crust"; the aloo mutter occupied the thin layer of the illustration labeled "grass". The skimpiest chocolate sundae you have ever eaten had a more even distribution of elements. If I wasn't careful, I'd wind up halfway through my meal with nothing left but half a bowl of rice.

I suddenly flashed back a few decades, sitting in sophomore Algebra thinking, "When will I ever use this is my life?" This bowl of food was the answer to my question. Algebra, geometry, statistics----some sort of ratio-based mathematics would be required to optimize the enjoyment of this lunch, ensuring that I didn't run out of aloo mutter before I was sated. I had hacked through the mathematical weeds of Mrs. Brann's algebra class, and later endured a year of doodling with a compass and protractor with Mr. Beuhler---I was ready for this challenge. (Plus, I was famished.)

First, I decided to calculate the ideal consumption pattern using Algebraic methods: If A represents the aloo mutter, and B represents the rice, then the ratio of A to B as a whole should be represented in each bite of lunch; estimating the bowl held approximately 30 bites, then each bite would be three percent of the meal, and would be represented by the equation "Bite=(Ax3%)+(Bx3%)", or "Bite=(A:B)/30". (I'm glad this was aloo mutter, because the plethora of As and Bs would have made for a boring bowl of alphabet soup.)

Unfortunately, This would require constant adjustment on bites 2 through 29 if I wanted to ensure bite 30 was the same ratio of flavors as bite 1, as any variation from the formula on one bite would require compensation on the next bite. I surmised that this was simply too much work to try to fit into a too-brief lunch break, and algebra was discarded.

Next I endeavored to divide the meal geometrically: The bowl was approximately 6 inches across, and since area is derived from Pi-R-Squared, and the radius is 3 the surface area of the bowl is approximately 28 square inches. I had estimated there were approximately 30 bites of lunch in the bowl, so as long as I removed 1 square inch of surface area---all the way to the bottom---with each bit, I would have essentially equal bites of food each time, and I would not run out of entrée while still having a unappetizing pile of starch.

Trouble was, the thickness of the aloo mutter was inconsistent, as pools of sauce had filled gaps in the rice, so while the surface of the meal was essentially flat, there was no way to determine from above if a particular bite would feature more aloo mutter than rice. As such, each bite would be essentially random in its ratio. Was there a forgotten formula for identifying a pattern in the inconsistencies? Was there some postulate yet unpostulated or theorem unthought that would ensure even distribution of flavors among bites, thus maximizing the enjoyment of this culinary delight? And while we're at it, why struggle to impose a rigid pattern upon chaos if the results of the efforts will be chaos?

Why indeed. This is a chaotic world, and possessing a growling appetite, I felt qualified to step back in time and answer the younger version of myself who had asked, "When will I ever use this is my life?"

You won't, kid. By the time you need algebra---or at least what you dimly recall as algebra---your knowledge of math will have sat dormant for so long that your vaguely-remembered glossary terms will only further confuse your misunderstanding of those complex concepts. No amount of study of "sines" and "cosines" today will help you when, two decades later, some pompous buffoon at a cocktail party asserts that cosines are an essential metaphor for the city's ongoing public transportation issue. (You will sense it's bullshit, but you will be helpless to demonstrate this to your fellow cosine-illiterate party-goers.) At 40 you'll be balancing your checkbook and momentarily forget where the 2 gets carried off to when you carry the 2, and you'll suddenly imagine a dark, numberless future that includes carrying an oversized Texas Instruments calculator in your pocket so that you can figure the tip on a check.

But then I'll cheerfully remind the child that the moment when all of this comes crashing down upon you, when time and space and public education noisily collide in your head, a more satisfying realization will arrive with it: Life is like a bowl of aloo mutter---sometimes it's heavy on the rice, other times heavy on the sauce, but every time, its mostly delicious. Stop trying make it as dull as Mrs. Brann's Algebra class and dig in! No one is going to ask to see your math.

©2006 wpreagan

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