Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I like big portions and I cannot lie

I suspect you've read the news and heard all the jokes, so I won't go on too much about the article in the International Journal of Obesity last week where a couple of researchers analyzed 52 paintings or otherwise artistic renderings of The Last Supper and established that from the year 1000 to the year 2000, Jesus and his disciples appear to have, shall we say, lingered a little longer in the buffet line. The size of the entrĂ©e - who even knew they used that word back then? - went up a Biggie 70 percent. The bread only bumped up 30 percent, which makes sense, because everybody knows that just fills you up. Plus, when it's the host's body and all, you really want to mind your manners.

As usual, the fun is in the details and digressions. I was delighted to learn simply that a magazine called the International Journal of Obesity even exists. And an international edition, no less! You'd think the United States could pretty much run that show on its own. (Then again, the N in NASCAR stands for "National," when I get the impression all those guys come from the same two counties in South Carolina.) I've seen a more specialized magazine called Big Butts on one of the higher shelves at the barber shop, so I shouldn't have been surprised by a more general International Journal of Obesity, but there you have it. Even better is the research methodology. Apparently very few painters worked from such an angle that you could see the nutrition information on the labels, and different paintings come in different sizes and approaches, not to mention food had to evolve a bit over the course of a millennium. The researchers needed a constant. But what? Use your heads, someone said. Use your own head, someone responded. Use the apostles' heads, they compromised, and they compared meal size to mug size, and next thing you know they had themselves an article.

But really, we could have expected the supersizing. It's the nature of art to exaggerate serially. Each auteur slightly, subtly outdoes his predecessor, and before the community catches on, Jesus is eating at Old Country Buffet, Spinal Tap's amplifiers go up to 11, and the women in the Rumple Minze schnapps ads are slung with breasts like dirigibles.

All in all, the news of this study made me think less of food than of another art-world truism: There are really only a few immortals, but the business is crazy with goof-offs taking Drawing 101 for an easy credit. I had a chance a few years back to knock around Italy and managed to tear myself away from the bicycling long enough to check out some art as well. Of course, the Last Supper was everywhere. But what struck me was not how much they were eating, but what. More often than not, it was some kind of barely identifiable, plucked rodent-like creature, resting supine on the platter with its feet sticking cartoonishly in the air. All the main course lacked was little X marks where the eyes go and tweeting birds circling overhead, but apparently that had to wait for a later enlightenment. And by that time, maybe the cooking had improved as well, which offers a pretty workable hypothesis to explain the increase in portion sizes.

Maybe I should write a paper on it. If the International Journal of Obesity won't run it, I'll try Big Butts.


Jimmy Doom said...

While you're incredibly well informed on a wide variety of topics, and I realize your NASCAR comment was based on opinion and not research, I feel compelled to drop some stock car knowledge on ya. North Carolina is actually the epicenter of the NASCAR world, with many of the teams based there. Michigan is actually well represented in team ownership, most notably Jack Roush and Roger Penske. Currently there is even a little backlash against the polished public and well spoken images of west coast drivers like Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who are much more Madison Avenue than they are Hazzard County backroads. Thought you'd like to know.

La Professora said...

"[M]aybe the cooking had improved as well, which offers a pretty workable hypothesis to explain the increase in portion sizes."

Yet, I have a hard time seeing Jesus and the Apostles saying "Super size that."

I have to agree with Jimmy Doom on the NASCAR front. See my sister's discussion of the topic, specially the reference to U of Michigan graduate, Janet Guthrie.

Now, if you had pointed out that the "World Series" only nominally includes Canada, you'd have hit idea out of the park, so to speak.