Pipeline issues

Asked, no doubt by some ignorant journalist, for the secret of her ageless maternal beauty, Sophia Loren, the Italian movie star, proclaimed:

“Everything you see, I owe to pasta.”

(Really, there is no improving on an Italian girl; so long as she is pre-Vatican II.)

I gather she made this remark or something like it several times, in defiance of the voracious dieting habits of her younger, bulimiac, stick-figure contemporaries. She goes to lunch with them and finds herself the only one eating.

Well, she recalled, from her own desperately impoverished childhood in war-time Campania, “Someone has to survive.” … Starch is important.

In my case it was beans and wieners. I suspected the wieners, too, were made of beans. Pythagoras (also well-known in Magna Graecia) would have been appalled.

My culinary education began with my mother, though she was not present for it. This because, she was a nurse. At a time of staff shortages occasioned by the Baby Boom (remember? it really happened!) she was volunteering nights in the local hospital. My father, sister, and I (to say nothing of my cat, Boefferina), still had to eat, however, and my father — like many XY males — could not be trusted to boil an egg. Anything more elaborate, he would have killed us all. My little sister, an XX female, showed more presence of mind in a kitchen, but having reasoned that the person who makes dinner may escape doing the dishes, I volunteered for cooking. This was of further benefit to my wee sibling, for it helped her to develop her operatic skills.

Mama gave me hints, though, and set out the raw materials, before herself disappearing. “You take beans from this can, here, chop in those wieners, and make them hot in a pot on that stovetop over there.” By trial and error, I got the hang of it.

By the time I had reached a riper childhood, I was delegated two recipes for fudge (dark chocolate, and blonde caramel, respectively), and given one for shortbread cookies (from the back of a baking soda box). Along the way I had mastered the mashing of potatoes, with abounding butter and cream; and how an English pork sausage called a “banger” could be substituted for the industrial wieners. Too, although my taste was not shared, I discovered that by stirring a scant tablespoon of Colman’s “mustard flour” into the beans, I could make them quite lively. By today, I am beyond Heinz Beanz (except on Fridays), and operating within a wider universe of Northern sausages, tinned gigantic Mediterranean beans, and additives herbal, oily, and miscellaneous.

But never too far beyond.

Once, gathered in a pub in Edinburgh with some engineering types, envelopes and pencils, we did some calculations from the known import volume of baked beans in tomato sauce to the United Kingdom, from the USA. The challenge: to calculate the diameter of a pipe that could be laid under the Atlantic Ocean, between Boston and Glasgow, to transport this substance more economically.

It wasn’t a professional job. Things like the flow-rate were merely estimated. The question of tunnelling through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was dealt with in a most desultory manner. Indeed, we barely scratched the surface of the problem of pumping baked beans under a constant pressure for several thousand miles. But if you can do it with petroleum, it must be a breeze.