Feeding 3/10/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The tunnel is long. It connects several buildings on campus, such as the science center, the dorm, and the cafeteria. About two-thirds of it is underground with the steam pipes, and the rest is through the administration building and an overpass.

There’s an old joke about college cafeteria food. It says that aside from colleges, only hospitals and insane asylums eat institutional food, so you either have to be sick or crazy to eat it. Honestly, I kind of like the food at most of the institutions that I have attended. Okay, it’s not fancy. It’s not a twenty-four-ounce rare steak with mushroom gravy, au gratin potatoes, and bacon wrapped asparagus. They can only work with the resources they have and are tasked with feeding a large number of people. If your standards are based on a five-star restaurant, you’re going to be disappointed, and nobody cooks like mom, but it’s edible, it’s plentiful, and it’s pretty good all things considered.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from quipping recently that I don’t eat their spaghetti sauce because I’m not a fan of ketchup.

But we only tease those that we love, right? Frequently, I think about the traditions of food in our society. We eat. We all eat. It’s a necessity of life (and the reason that more advanced creatures are not a violation of the second law of thermodynamics since eating generates a LOT of entropy to keep us alive). Show me a living human, and I’ll show you a human that eats. But isn’t it fascinating that this natural and necessary act has developed such a collection of traditions around it?

Eating is part of the social nature of our species. When we want to go out on a date, we typically go out to eat. When we have a family gathering, it’s around a meal. When we have something to celebrate, we often get cakes or sweets to share.

We eat.

This is not dissimilar from the animal kingdom. Feeding frenzies are common in the ocean; a school of fish will draw predators, or a school of piranhas will feast on a cow (for about thirty seconds). Lions will gather around a fallen gazelle to get their fair share, and even hyenas will wait take their turn. This has always struck me as very similar to a bunch of friends and loved ones gathering around a roast.

As I walked the long path to the cafeteria, I thought about animals and how they are very easily trained to migrate to one particular place that is replete with their food. The “hunting grounds” in the wild, but even cats and dogs know where their food is and will traverse to that one location in the house every day for their meals. If you want to change this location, it can be done, of course, but it’ll confuse the pets for at least a little bit. How are the employees and students of my college any different? We travel to that one location on campus (the cafeteria) every day where we know the food will be.

I wondered what this would look like if our eating habits were different. For example, chickens will constantly peck their food off of the ground. No doubt, in the wild, they would be looking for insects and seeds, but on farms, chicken feed is spread, and they will eat this. If humans ate off of the ground over a large area as chickens do, would we have cafeterias? Or would somebody walk along common pathways every day to throw food on the ground for us to find between classes?

Sounds like a funny scene for somebody to do in a science fiction movie.

If you haven’t noticed, my mind is a frightening place. As I walk, it is always working. Maybe this is why I like science; with science and research, I can constantly think about applications of science and how to solve questions and problems from my research. For example, I often think about entropy of meals. I have a good friend who makes just stunningly beautiful artistic salads and meals before she eats, but if you think about the presentation of most meals, you’d realize that they tend to be very little low entropy. Consuming the meal begins with mastication, then digestion, and throughout the process the disorder (the entropy) increases. Because of this, it has been suggested that the entropy increase in consumption is as important to the process as the energy we get from it. If I don’t think about things like this, then I think about how we would distribute food if we ate like chickens.

YOU decide which is better!

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