Monthly Archives: March 2010

Lessons From the Last Supper?

You’ve probably heard of the Ig-Nobel awards.  Each October they are given to honor research studies that make us wonder why we have to work for a living while people are getting grants to figure out things like why woodpeckers don’t get headaches and the effect of country music on suicide (yes, it does make you want to kill yourself). 

Someone also managed to determine that rats are not able to in all cases tell the difference between Japanese and Dutch when spoken backwards.  Sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.  Now you know.

I came across a study I think has a shot at this year’s list.

There is a professor at Cornell University who is also director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.  His brother is a professor of religious studies at a college in Virginia.

They decided to collaborate on some truly useful research which would establish a nexus between food and religion.  They found out that the portion size of the food, as well as the size of the plates, has increased over the years in paintings of the Last Supper.

What? you say.  I’d been wondering about that.

It’s really scientific.  They measured the size of the disciples’ heads as well as the size of the plates and the different fishes and loaves, and with some fancy math and complicated looking charts, they drew their conclusions.  The plate size over the years (from 1000 to 2000) has increased by 66% and serving sizes have increased accordingly. 

They think that this might have something to do with the fact that people are getting fatter all the time.

The findings are yet to be published in a periodical ominously called The Journal of Obesity, but you can get the advance scoop here:

If you’re like me, you are wondering about the implications for the human race.

But on a more limited level, I started thinking about Last Supper paintings.  It seems that ever since Dan Brown, Last Supper paintings have been telling us a lot more than we might have originally imagined.  First, as you recall, there is the Dan Brown issue of whether some of the guys are really girls.  Now we have the serving size in LS paintings being either an indicator or predictor of obesity in the modern world.

I’d never looked closely before, so I decided to study a few LS paintings to see what they are talking about.  Maybe I was looking at a sample of different paintings, (and I didn’t have access to complex mathematical models) but I don’t see how they came up with their conclusions.  But it is clear that you can learn a lot from the paintings. 

As far as I know, the only Last Supper menu items specifically mentioned in the Bible are bread and wine.  Matthew says, “when supper was done . . .” so presumably there were other things as well and it is here that the artists have used some interesting imagination. 

Here is Leonardo’s famous version.  He seems to have limited himself to bread and wine.  We probably need some research to determine what the painting has to say about putting food on the table rather than on the plates.  Maybe it has something to do with the evolution of table manners—clearly an untapped area for research–because one thing you will note is that in later paintings there seems to be a lot of talking and gesturing going on while in earlier paintings, the participants are much calmer. 

In the painting below, speaking of calm, have a look at the guy to Jesus’s left in this 1310 depiction by Duccio di Buoninsegna.  Also, is it me or are the people facing us all looking at whatever is on the plate with uncertainty? And while we’re on the subject, what is that on the plate?

Here is how Andrea de Castagno portrayed it in 1447.  How did they measure the portion size in this one, I wonder?

Below is Giotto’s 1335 version.  I can’t say anything about the food, but the Apostle’s bottoms seem a little supersized to me.  Plus it looks like someone should do some research on improvements in halo technology over the years. 

Jacopo Bassano painted this one in 1546 which shows a return to loud 16th century table manners.  Also, I really hope this is the end of the meal rather than the beginning and that head is a leftover!

And this is Philippe de Champagne in 1652.  It’s always interesting to try to spot Judas in these paintings.  This is an easy one—he’s the guy in the front left with the attitude, showing some leg and a bag with his thirty pieces of silver.

 More recent paintings show less interest in reality (and food).  Here is William Blake’s 1799 depiction.

Lastly, here is Salvador Dali’s 1955 painting.  Although this one doesn’t seem to support the idea of serving sizes increasing, it is consistent with my theory about manners.  It looks like Jesus is rapping.  What next?  Cell phones at the table?

So where does that leave us?  A veritable unplowed field of potential research topics.  It’s about time someone used these paintings to run some projections about men’s fashion (especially footwear), how to seat guests at a dinner, table etiquette, what to wear to dinner, cuisine, and use of space in dining rooms. 

I look forward to hearing all about it.

I Guess It Had To Happen

There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.  These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to offend, or to disgust.”  –Edgar Allan Poe

What goes for mere romanticists probably also goes for bloggers.  But I’m going to ignore Edgar’s advice.  Plus, what I’m about to share with you ain’t fiction.

The new school year is now well underway and our nephews have been coming over after school again.  The routine is pretty much the same as last semester except the homework is a little harder and the books they are reading are more interesting.  And the jokes are a little more alarming.

Plus the fall weather is having an impact.  We decided to go for a swim instead of extended homework the other afternoon and the pool temperature had dropped considerably.  It didn’t seem to bother them, but I was convinced that my core body temperature was dropping perilously low and our favourite pool game “HMS Titanic” had become uncomfortably realistic.  Not only that, I’m afraid that the weather will soon start to turn rainy and I’ll have to do battle with the SUVs when I go pick up the boys. 

But that’s not the point. 

The issue is that the inevitable finally happened.  I never thought about it, and if I had I might have been less sanguine about this whole after school enterprise.  We had our first (and I fervently hope, last) case of sickness.  I use the term ‘sickness’ in the classical sense.  As in, “I think I’m going to be sick” sickness.

In retrospect, I knew immediately that something was wrong when I met them on the walk home.  They weren’t their usual cheery selves and Xerxes, the seven year old, was complaining about a headache. 

Our usual regimen is a snack and then homework followed by some sort of diversion such as swimming, playing a game or doing a puzzle.  The snack was in progress, more slowly than usual and it just happened.  The poor kid’s condition deteriorated until the unspeakable occurred.

It wasn’t exactly a scene from The Exorcist, but let’s face it, when it comes to this sort of thing there are only two categories:  pea green projectile vomit and the just plain horrendous. 

We had the latter.

Worse, the poor little kid really tried not to make a mess. 

But that only succeeded in ensuring that it was even worse. I.e., the incident was not localized but rather spread over an erratic path from the kitchen to the bathroom.

And then it got really bad. 

Not, I hasten to point out, as bad as the time my boss and I were flying back from some outpost of our empire on a hot summer day.  Some woman across the aisle and in the row behind us had a ‘problem’ which she compounded by failing to fully open the bag provided by the airline for such exigencies.  It was bad but got infinitely worse when, on landing, the pilot informed us that the taxiway was temporarily closed and we had to park on the runway until it opened.  “Park on the runway” was a euphemism for “bake in the summer sunshine.”  My boss was turning more colors than the time I told him that I’d put a decimal point in the wrong place in the IT budget.  

Fortunately the plane got moving and we bolted off before a chain reaction started.   

Speaking of chain reactions, I’d experienced one of those once before on a 16 seater prop plane in heavy turbulence over the Appalachians.  In retrospect, it’s kind of funny, but at the time it was the most horrible thing I’d ever experienced.  If the word ‘surrealistic’ had not existed, it would have to have been invented for the occasion.  The plane was flying sideways (really) and pitching up and down and the only good thing was that we were too miserable to be scared.  One person grabbed their bag and started using it and it was like a cue for the rest of us.  When we landed, the ground crew must have wondered what was going on.  Sixteen bedraggled and green travellers staggering down the steps and gulping fresh air, each clutching a little white bag like it was our lunch.  Well, for most of us, it technically was.  Or had been.

The only good news about these incidents was that it was a great help to me during my annual review.  I was able to credibly argue to my boss that ‘you don’t pay me enough’ to endure the stuff I have to go through.  He had to agree.

Anyway, back to our newly festooned kitchen, hall and bathroom.  What made it especially bad this time was that I felt compelled to help in the clean up process.  Although initially I informed my wife that there was another thing besides windows (and worm farms) that I don’t do, I did participate.  If we’d been soldiers, she would have led the attack and after she secured the beachhead I did the mopping up.  Literally and figuratively.


You know what really helps?  If you don’t have an outfit like this, take some of that Japanese wasabi mustard.  We have a tube of it for when we have sushi.  Take a little taste and it totally zaps your olfactory system until the worst is over.

The good news is that once Xerxes got it out of his system, he was his normal self again.  And our floors are cleaner than ever.