Sunday, March 30, 2014

Common Cored

The Common Core Standards Initiative, adopted in many states in the last decade, has been criticized for turning formerly simple and well-known approaches to math that have been employed for centuries into Kafkaesque problems whose very existence causes mental anguish among not just the poor students subject to mastering them, but to their hapless parents as well.

Instead of performing a simple arithmetic task — subtraction, say — by subtracting the smaller number from the larger one, students now have to break the numbers up into chunks and draw squares and put them all back together again to produce the answer. It takes far longer, defies logic, and is more likely to result in a wrong answer.

14? Right?

I can speak from personal experience; my fifth-grader, who has a natural affinity for math, can often be found in tears when confronted by the need to do his homework the way the teacher insists, rather than just getting the right answers. I cannot explain to him why he needs to do this. I shrug and we do the problems the old-school way.

In the spirit of the Common Core, I would like to illustrate this with a Glazed Ham Ring from 1969.

Imagine the math problem as a pig. A delicious pig. Think of all the lovely ways you could eat this pig: pork chops; ham; bacon; barbecued ribs; slow roasted shoulder; pulled pork sandwich; sausages; crackling. All are relatively simple in that the pig is broken down into various parts and cooked, and then served. The parts still look like they came from an animal on the serving platter, and indeed, on your plate.

Now imagine taking some of this wonderful pig and grinding some of it into a pink mush. Mix the mush with bread, eggs, and onion. Take this mush and form it into a ring mold. Invert the oiled mold onto a baking tray and bake. Afterwards, cover it in a bright red glaze, and fill the hole in the middle with a mixture of half-peeled potatoes, peas, and cream. Serve with red apples and a generous helping of parsley.

Write a word problem for this pig that takes into account having turned all the ingredients for this dish into spheres. Then, solve the problem, showing your work. Use a #2 pencil.

Congratulations: according to the Common Core, you are now ready to apply your knowledge in the workplace.

Meat Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1969

Also from this book: Kitchen Nightmares

Sunday, March 2, 2014



The asparagus spears stared at us intently from their jelly cocoon as we made small talk and sipped aperitifs. I tried to pay attention to the man sitting next to me, who was relating an anecdote about his misbegotten youth — likely the same anecdote he’d been using on unsuspecting dinner table partners for years — perhaps since his youth, which was, it was obvious, at some time in the distant past of the last century.

The asparagus seemed to want to make telepathic contact, to transmit an SOS directly to my brain. Help, they cried piteously. Been boiled. I think my friend is ill. Stuck in aspic. Can’t move.

Something something…Ration books and the War. Something something…Well, you’ll never guess what happened next…Three shillings ha’ppenny.

Save us, they silently screamed. I felt the same way.

I attempted to return their desperate communiqué. Dilemma noted, I thought. Will attempt rescue soon.

The more I stole glances their way, the less they looked like asparagus, and more like the disembodied tentacles of some awful sea creature, or else the severed penises of some exotic South American mammal.

Our hostess clinked her glass, bringing me out of my reverie, and temporarily releasing me from the verbal assault of my gentleman admirer. It was time to begin. I sat, fork poised over the perfectly smooth, glistening surface of my appetizer, aware that every second delayed the heroic rescue I was about to perform.

What if, once freed, the asparagus leaped up from their gelatinous prison, gasping for air and hell-bent on exacting revenge? They stared at me, and I stared back. It was the moment of truth.

“Go on,” I said to my ancient paramour. “I believe we were rudely interrupted.”

Salad Book, Lane Books, 1966
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