Friday 21 June 2013

I was a food engineer

After giving a rather back-handed compliment to people who make highly-coloured multi-ingredient confections, it is ironic that I should now out myself as a quondam food engineer.

I was never so poor as when I put myself through graduate school in Boston.  I earned a pot of money in Rotterdam, at least partly by scrabbling through crocodile shit for small change. But almost all that loot went to pay for my first semester's fees. Many people see their years in college as the happiest of their lives.  I think I count myself both lucky and happy for those years, when we were still young, when we were fired up with finding out, when our lives were stripped to essentials: food, shelter and friendship.  No car, no house, one pair of shoes, a stock of khaki shirts that I'd worn for work in the zoo in Rotterdam. Every few weeks there would be a special on ice cream at the Star Market across the Mass 'Pike from work.  The handful of us in the basement lab would throw coins into a hat until it came to $1.69 and someone would go to buy a half gallon of ice-cream, the walker getting to choose the flavor.  If that sounds a lot, I hasten to say that we're talking about US (4 lt) gallons not greedy Imperial (5 lt) gallons.  There was only ever a couple of spoons, but you can eat ice-cream almost as quickly with a fork or a foot-rule, although the guy with the spatula was a bit slower.

Even graduate students can't live on ice-cream alone and you'd starve entirely if you had to wait for the free coffee and donuts that the department laid out on Friday mornings, so I was delighted to find that the student's union cafeteria had an all you can eat salad bar.  They charged $1.29 for whatever you could fit in a 15cm diameter bowl.  You just had to get the teetering heap of food to the checkout to qualify.  It didn't matter if it all spilled out across the tray before you got to sit down. There were tomatoes and corn and lettuce and chick-peas and grated carrot and scallions and croutons and coleslaw and dill-pickles and other stuff too exotic to name by fresh-off-the-boat me.  They say that rats, if given a sufficient variety of food, will choose a close approximation to a perfectly balanced diet.  I dunno about that, but I ate a lot of raw vegetable matter when I could make the time to trek to the Union at the other end of campus.  Then my friend Larry told me about making the bowl bigger.  The key was to use iceberg lettuce leaves cantilevered out to increase the diameter of the bowl by as much as 50%. - effectively doubling the load.  Obviously these leaves would flip a lot of food out of the bowl and onto the floor if they weren't properly counter-weighted.  Larry recommended chick-peas but after some experimentation (science where it mattered) I found that the big tomato quarters cemented with chick-peas and coleslaw worked better.  So I became a food-engineer early on in my career and might not have survived without this training - thanks Larry.  I'm not ashamed: a Structural Engineer, Food is not the same as a Chemical Engineer, Food. As completely different as the People's Engineers of Judea is different from the Judean People's Engineers.
Earlier today I gave a rather full-frontal compliment to starving graduate students, because I've bean there. I'm glad they still exist because for a while just after the turn of the century it seemed as if the species was rare to the point of extinction. I was then working in one of Dublin's great teaching hospitals as a post-doc at the frontiers of biomedical science with a couple of dozen graduate students from several different research groups.  We'd all have lunch round a big table in one of the lobbies.  I'd eat my humble sandwich - two slices of home-made bread, with a slice of cheese - and lettuce if there was any in the bottom of the fridge.  Round me the talk was about where to buy the best sandwich: the hospital canteen or the garage across the road which threw in a soda and a bag of crisps for €3.50 or the private hospital canteen where the sambos were made to spec before your very eyes.  I couldn't shake the reflection that they were spending as much on a sandwich as I'd earned in half a week in my first job riddling potatoes in a freezing barn.

On the ground floor was a large and a small lecture theatre and at least once a week there would be a talk or a presentation and the drug companies would send a rep to lay out their wares.  We were never short of pens or post-its, and if the talk was at lunchtime, one of the multinats was sure to provide a big tray of sandwiches for the hungry doctors.  For the first few weeks I'd trip up the stairs after the talk and breathlessly tell the graduate students that ... there ... was ... free ... food ... down ... stairs.  They'd look at me as if I had two heads - we have sandwiches here thanks.  Tiger cubs!

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