The Solution to the Mysteries

of Everyday Life.

By: David Feldman.

Copyright @ 1986

Why does a thumbs-up gesture mean “okay”?

Any Roman gladiator movie worth its salt includes the obligatory Colosseum combat scene wherein the sated, corpulent sovereign seals the fate of a beaten warrior by giving the thumbs-down signal. The crowd, with their thumbs, advises the king; in movies, at least, hanging juries were the rule, though they may have been prejudiced by the foreboding music on the soundtrack.

Most people assume that the modern-day thumbs-up signal originated from this Roman affirmative meaning . Not so. In his book Gestures, Desmond Morris explains that Romans signified their approval of a beaten warrior not by signaling thumbs up but by covering their thumbs. When the crowd wanted the victorious gladiator to finish off the loser, they extended their thumbs, which Morris theorizes mimicked the act of stabbing the beaten man.

If Rome was the birthplace of the thumbs-up signal, we would expect the gesture to be popular there today, and yet Italy (followed by Greece) was found to be the country in Europe where this meaning is least signified. In many parts of southern Italy and Greece, the thumbs-up gesture is a sexual insult rather than a sign of approval. It is likely that the thumbs-up gesture started somewhere else.

If the early Roman derivation has been debunked, why do we use a thumbs-up signal to indicate “okay”? The historical evidence, as with most gestures, is murky and contradictory. Morris and other authorities believe the predominant reason is that Western culture tends to associate upward movements with positive, optimistic feelings and downward movements with negative, pessimistic emotions.

 Obviously, any finger pointed upward is heaven-bound. In the l970s, the gesture of a forefinger extended upward became a symbol of fundamentalist Christians. The solitary forefinger not only indicated “one God” and “one way,” but where God resided and where the good Christian could someday reside.

The thumb might have been selected as the raised digit because it is the most easily isolated finger. Try raising your finger and withdrawing your other fingers, and you’ll realize why the thumb was a more natural choice.

Why is butter, rather than margarine, served

even in grungy eating establishments?

Most consumers prefer butter to margarine . But they buy margarine in grocery stores. Margarine is cheap, it has no cholesterol, and it provides a reasonable imitation of butter. One would expect to be served butter in an elegant restaurant, but why do coffee shops, cafeterias, diners, and even fast-food establishments invariably serve butter?

The answer lies in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which specifically provides that oleomargarine cannot be sold in a public place unless: a notice that oleomargarine or margarine is served is displayed prominently and conspicuously in such place and in such manner as to render it likely to be read and understood by the ordinary individual being served in such eating place or is printed or is set forth on the menu in type or lettering not smaller than that normally used to designate the serving of other food items. No person shall serve colored . . . margarine at a public eating place, whether or not any charge is made therefore, unless (1) each separate serving bears or is accompanied by labeling identifying it as oleomargarine or margarine, or (2) each separate serving thereof is triangular in shape.

With the exception of hospitals and kosher restaurants, few culinary institutions want to publicize the fact that they serve a perfectly wholesome substitute for butter. The restaurant industry is so self-conscious about the whole butter/ margarine issue that many places serve individual pats with covers that blare B-U-T-T-E-R in capital letters.

Ironically, restaurants are under no compulsion to announce their use of margarine in cooking, where its use is much easier to conceal. And even restaurants that use butter can purchase a wide range of quality. Butter is rated on a range of 0-100, with the top butters achieving the mid-90s level. Although few restaurants use them, the cheaper, inferior grades of butter, which do not have to be labeled in any way, can have an off taste far more objectionable than any margarine.

Why do we eat ham at Easter?

The ritual of eating ham around Easter time predates Christianity. Ham was the entree at spring feasts for a very practical reason: Fresh meats were not available at the beginning of spring. So pagans buried prized fresh pork legs in the sand by the sea during the fall and winter. The pork was cured by the constant “marinating” of the salt water. The preserved meat was then cooked over wood fires. The pig was always a symbol of good luck and prosperity in the Indo-European culture, which made the choice of ham an even more felicitous choice for feasting.

In the early days of Christendom, Easter was celebrated on the Jewish Passover, and the two holidays are connected in several other ways. Just as Passover celebrates the Jews’ release from bondage, so does Easter celebrate Jesus’ release from the constraints of death. The paschal lamb, the ritual sacrifice made by Jews for each Passover, became emblematic of Jesus for Christians.

In ancient times, Jews ate the slain lamb for their Passover feast. They would never have contemplated eating ham, of course, since all pork products are proscribed by Moses in the Old Testament.

Early Christians, however, believed that Jesus’ instructions superseded Mosaic law. While the Orthodox Christians had ordained fasts, they believed that no particular food should be prohibited from the diet.

Unfortunately, what started as Christian liberality in diet turned into some deliberate Jew-baiting . In particular, the English took to eating bacon at Easter in order to enrage Jews and repudiate everything Jewish. In the eleventh century, William (the Conqueror) I, who preferred ham to bacon, encouraged his subjects to make the switch. Thus, pork, and particularly ham, has been the popular Easter meal in Western Europe ever since.

Not all cultures eat ham at Easter. In fact, England and to a lesser extent the United States have joined Eastern Europe and much of the Mediterranean in consuming lamb for their Easter feast. The choice of lamb, of course, derives from the Passover paschal lamb (although in Greece, for example, there needn’t be any excuse to eat lamb). To some extent, one can successfully predict whether a given country will eat ham or lamb for Easter by determining which meat is consumed more every other day of the year.

The most likely explanation for the connection between eggs and Easter is that in medieval times, Christians were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent. So many eggs were accumulated during the forty-day fast that there were literally more eggs than they could eat. What to do? Why not decorate them?

An old legend gives a more moving explanation for the decoration of Easter eggs. Simon of Cyrene, an egg peddler by profession, was forced to abandon his wares and carry Jesus’ cross to Calvary. According to Luke, when Simon returned to his basket of eggs after the Crucifixion, the eggs were unexplainably, and miraculously, beautifully decorated. According to this legend, we decorate eggs today to commemorate the memory of Jesus’ sacrifice and the nobility of the humble Simon.

When an elevator is illegally overloaded with

passengers, who is criminally responsible?

When you are bored at breakfast, you read cereal boxes.

When you are bored on an elevator, you read the elevator-inspection certificate, which in most localities is posted inside the elevator and includes not only emergency procedures, but specified weight and passenger capacities.

In most cities, it is a crime or a civil violation to overload an elevator. We’ve always wondered how these rules are enforced. Do the police conduct spot “weight traps,” corralling unsuspecting hordes and putting them on cattle scales? Do those  new electric eyes on so-called security elevators actually do head counts, electronically signaling Interpol when there is one too many passengers in an elevator?

And what if the police do nab 11 people and 1600 pounds in an elevator designed for 10 people and 1500 pounds? Who is legally responsible? The last person to enter the elevator? The other 10 people, for allowing the illegal eleventh? And if there are only 10 people on the elevator, are you responsible for knowing the weight of your fellow passengers?

We talked to every branch of law enforcement in the elevator capital of the world, New York City, and we at Imponderables are pleased to inform you: Relax. No one could dig up a case, ever, (Yes, EVER)where passengers were prosecuted for overloading an elevator, although such a rule is on the books. Even elevator inspectors we spoke to indicated that they wouldn’t report freight elevators being overloaded and that they would be lucky if they didn’t get cursed at for politely suggesting that maybe it would be a good idea not to try to cram ten refrigerators into a small elevator.

Little things like muggings and murders aren’t the only reasons for law enforcement’s laissez-faire attitude toward incipient elevator crime—overloading an elevator isn’t particularly dangerous. Excess weight is not a common cause of elevator accidents. Most electronic elevators will simply not move if overweighted; others will not even close their doors.

The formula used for designating elevator capacities, developed by the federal government, is a bit on the arbitrary side. It isn’t real complicated. Once the square footage and the technical specifications of the elevator are determined, a weight capacity is issued. Then that weight capacity is divided by 150 pounds to determine what number to list as the maximum passenger capacity. Obviously, this weight standard would not work for a convention of Overeaters Anonymous, and an elevator certainly can’t sense whether there are 8 adults or 15 little kids in an elevator. The weight capacities are meant to be guidelines, although even the usefulness of guidelines is questionable when it is difficult to pack enough full-size adults in an elevator to exceed the stated limits and when it doesn’t matter much, from a safety standpoint, whether the elevator is overloaded.

If there were a horrendous elevator accident, civil, not criminal, action is likely to occur, but the elevator passengers are more likely to be the plaintiffs than the defendants in such a proceeding. Most likely, injured passengers would sue the building that houses the elevator (for allowing its elevators to become overcrowded) and the manufacturer for building a defective elevator.

Why does chicken always take longer to cook

than the recipe specifies?

The great chicken mystery was one of the toughest of Imponderables to unravel. Friends, ‘with absolute unanimity, agreed that they invariably had to cook chicken longer than recipes suggested.

So we immediately turned to some professional chefs, who asked if we took the chicken directly out of the refrigerator before washing it and putting it into the oven. “Yes,” Imponderables replied.

Aha!” the chefs gloated. “Meat should be at room temperature or it will take longer than stated to cook.”

We went back to the kitchen, let a whole chicken reach room temperature, and stuck it back in the oven. Now it cooked 33 % slower than the recipe indicated, rather than 50 % slower.

Undaunted, Imponderabks contacted Perdue chicken with our problem and were stunned by their response. Perdue distributes millions of recipes with its packages of chickens, and although it receives many comments about its recipes, Public Relations Coordinator Rita Morgan said, “I don’t see a single reference to cooking time in recent years.” Ms. Morgan added that specified cooking times were meant to be approximate and that they allow ten to fifteen minutes discretionary time to alert cooks to begin checking for doneness. The Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster comes with a pop-up thermometer, like some turkeys, to eliminate the guesswork in timing. The pop-up thermometer eliminates one obvious problern—mistiming because of an inaccurate oven thermostat.

Could there be a difference between Perdue chickens and other chickens?

Or was there a difference between Perdue chicken recipes and other recipes?

Imponderables wrote to Holly Farms Poultry Industries, Inc., another giant among retail chicken suppliers in the United States, for some badly needed help. William M. Rusch, director of marketing for Holly Farms, was kind enough to reply and, almost certainly, provide the solution to this Imponderable: We would suggest variation in chicken size to be a possible answer. More specifically, ten years ago, the average broiler/fryer weighed approximately two and one-half

pounds. Today, the average is well over three pounds, with a range from three to four plus pounds.

Older cookbooks and recipes invariably called for or the writer had in mind a two and one-half-pound bird. Still today we see recipes published calling for two and one-half pound chickens and would guess there are many republished recipes where no weight is stated, but the original assumption was a two and one-half pound


We went back to our cookbooks. Sure enough, they were all at least ten years old. Those books that did specify indicated a two and one half-pound broiler-fryer. Many recipes did not even indicate the size of the bird.

When we cook a turkey, we use its weight to calculate cooking time, and yet many of us, evidently, think all chickens are created equal. As Mr. Rusch added, a smaller bird might cook faster, but the heavier the chicken, the proportionately more meat and less bone per bird, so that it would probably take longer to cook l980s chicken parts than their scrawnier, earlier counterparts.

The “bigger bird theory” also explains why Perdue hasn’t received complaints about its recipes. Its whole chickens range from about three pounds to over seven pounds for Oven Stuffer Roasters . But the recipes enclosed in packages are not keyed to the size of that particular bird.

Jmponderables conducted one final test. We cooked a six-pound Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster (brought first to room ternperature, of course) according to the recipe on the package . It worked. Done on time. One more Imponderable unplucked!

Why is film sold at 12, 20, 24, and 36 exposures?

According to the Eastman Kodak Company, the first Kodak cameras “were darkroom loaded, and depending on the size used rolls of film for 48, 60, or 100 pictures. When the first of the daylight loading roll films on flanged spools were offered, they came in 12-exposure rolls. Later, many of them were also made in 6- or 2-exposure rolls.”

The Kodak “Brownie”, introduced in 1900, provided cameras for the masses, combining ease of use with a comfortable price. The camera sold for a buck; a roll of film for 15 cents.

While Eastman’s flexible celluloid roll film eliminated the heavy and expensive glass plates that plagued casual users, the pictures were soft with inadequate detail; the serious photographer still could not find a combination of high-resolution pictures with portability. In the early twentieth century, the size of the camera was dictated by the size of the negative frame it held, until a man named Oskar Barnack revolutionized photography.

Oskar Barnack was an apprentice mechanic for an optical equipment factory and an amateur photographer on the side . He wanted to make larger pictures with smaller cameras, but he needed to find a way to reduce the size of the negative. Barnack was hired by the Leitz Company, which at that time was primarily a manufacturer of scientific instruments. Leitz was working on a motion picture camera, and Barnack hit on the idea of using motion picture film for his still camera.

Oskar Leitz shook the film industry by introducing the Leica camera at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1925 . Barnack created a camera that used 35-millimeter motion picture film and needed a mere 1 x 1½” negative. Not only was the picture quality much better than American cameras, but the motion picture negative was capable of almost limitless enlargements with relatively little loss of detail.

This Leica camera had a maximum capacity of 36 exposures. Originally, Leica customers had to load bulk film manually and insert it into the Leica camera. Kodak introduced pre-loaded cartridges in 1934, to fit the Retina, Contax, and Leica cameras, and Kodak adopted the Leica standard of 36 exposures as its length.

In 1936 , Kodak introduced 18-exposure rolls but increased the size to 20 exposures for transparency films in 1946 and 24: exposures for color negative film in 1977. The increased size was a response to consumer preference for slightly larger roll sizes and not a result of any technological change.

The 12-exposure roll was first marketed by Kodak in Japan. Kodak introduced this size because of continuing interest in half-frame cameras, which make twice as many pictures on a roll of film. The 12-exposure roll was introduced in the U.S. because of consumer interest in a short roll. Although more expensive per picture than the larger rolls, the 12-exposure roll was the answer to the perpetual problem of the photographer harassing friends and relatives at parties by imploring, “Come on! Just eight more pictures! I want to finish off the roll.”

Here are just a few of the ways in which White Castle

differs from the bigger players on the block.

While McDonald’s , Burger King, and Wendy’s derive much of their income from franchising, all of the White Castles are owned by the parent corporation.

While the “big three” have tried to spread as quickly and widely as possible through franchising, White Castle has been content to consolidate its operation in the Midwest, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York.

The first White Castle was built in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, and the company is now based in Columbus, Ohio. Although White Castle predated McDonald’s, there are more than ten times as many golden arches.

While other fast-food emporiums have diversified their menus, offering breakfasts, gourmet sandwiches, and salad bars, White Castle has stuck with its staples. Yes, it offers a couple of other token sandwiches, but White Castle was even resistant to offering french fries and onion chips. Even now, hamburger sales constitute a full 60 percent of its gross, a much higher figure than any other  major hamburger chain.

While other fast-food chains emphasize the large size of their patties, mostly in an effort to lure more adults, White Castle sticks with its tiny burgers. When White Castle opened in the twenties, a Whitie cost five cents. Today, a burger costs around thirty cents. What you get for that thirty cents is a patty that is two inches wide and two inches long and not at all thick.

Long before Wendy’s, White Castle offered a square hamburger (and a square bun). The patties were not square for the marketing reasons that motivated Wendy’s. White Castle’s grills were designed to hold 30 hamburger patties. A square patty allows the burgers to cook with literally no unused grill space, enabling the cook to increase turnover . Bob Goldberg, a spokesperson for White Castle, estimates that one store can produce 2500—3000 hamburgers in an hour, in the unlikely case it would be called upon to do so.

White Castle burgers taste different than those of any of the other major chains and have a totally different texture. There is no delicate way of stating it: White Castle burgers reek of onions and have a soggy consistency. Far from an insult, these are the major reasons White Castle aficionados love them. Devotees call the little burgers “sliders,” undoubtedly because one needn’t chew a “Whitie “ to ingest it; the bun and patty are soggy enough to slide down the digestive tract. The onion taste is unmistakable. Before the hamburger patties are to be cooked, a little water is placed on the grill, followed by onions. The beef is then placed over the onions and the buns over the beef. The buns are permeated by the rising, pungent steam of water, onion juice, and beef fat. Another reason why the buns turn out so soggy is that White Castle, which makes its own buns, deliberately makes them much lighter than other fast-food companies, so they can absorb the moisture more readily.

But of all the differences between White Castle and its competitors, none is as strange as one feature of every White Castle hamburger patty: It has five little holes. These holes were introduced in 1946, and as usual with White Castle, they serve a totally utilitarian function. The holes allow the steam and grease from the grill to escape up the holes to the upper bun, which cooks atop each patty. This release of steam and grease eliminates the need to flip over the meat in order to cook it evenly!

The holes help provide sliders with their texture. The rising grease helps give the upper bun the layer of gray film so beloved by customers, and the rising steam helps make the upper bun melt in your hand, as well as your mouth. The holes are not punched, but extruded by a specially designed instrument called a beef horn, which uses five steel rods to extrude the meat as the patties are formed.

White Castle has always been a family-owned operation, and like many private companies, the Ingram clan has been cautious in its policies. But the smallness and tight-knittedness of White Castle has also given it a strong sense of its identity. White Castle has not been ashamed of its customers, who are traditionally less affluent than the upscale types the Mc-Donald’s commercials are aimed at. Many White Castles are located in inner city areas in midwestern cities that have supposedly seen better days, and many are open 24 hours and attract blue-collar workers on their way to or from graveyard shifts.

White Castle may seem like a nostalgic anachronism, the symbol of a bygone era. Don’t bet on it. White Castle is doing very well, thank you. Its per-store gross in 1984 was $1.3 million, first in the fast-food industry (just edging out McDonald’s). Part of the Ingram family’s conservative policy includes treating its employees well (at least by the philistine standards of the fast-food industry). While McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King have to contend with constant turnover of personnel, White Castle has phenomenal worker loyalty, partly because employees participate in a profit-sharing program.

White Castle doesn’t think there are too many Imponderables about the hamburger business. It took a soggy, smelly burger that MBA types would probably deem unmarketable and created a mini-empire. Every decision it makes seems to have a practical, utilitarian purpose. If punching holes in its hamburger is going to increase its grill turnover, then holes in the hamburgers it will have.

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