Holism, Reductionism, and Combos® Baked Snacks

Many, many years ago — when I was 23 — I saw a very compelling episode of the public television show Nova called “How to Create a Junk Food.” This was a documentary from Britain’s Channel 4 that was given a new voice-over by the producers of Nova, as well as a silly intro and outro featuring Julia Child. The show chronicled the development of a new snack food.

This past year I’ve watched this documentary twice, once in San Diego through the miracle of inter-library loan and once in the Media Resources Center in UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library. The program tells a remarkable story of technology gone wrong. In the 1980’s, the British company PA Designs Ltd. hoped to fill a snack food market niche. Their market research showed that consumers wanted an easy-to-eat snack that was healthy, natural, and had no chemical preservatives. They wanted something that was nutritious, tasty, and crispy.

The food technologists at PA Designs started with this mandate, and through a careful, step-by-step evolutionary process — addressing various problems of manufacturing requirements, consumer preferences, and cost restrictions — they developed a brand new snack, one that eventually came to America as this:


What are those, you ask? Why, those are Combos® baked snacks.

Healthy? Natural? Nutritious? No chemical preservatives? What the heck happened?

Initially, the food scientists thought that they could make a crispy cone baked from croissant dough, and fill it with moist savory fillings. Peter Sampson, of PA Designs, immediately noted a potential problem when he and his crew of food technologists were sampling fillings — beef, and cheese, and chicken-and-prawns — that had been prepared in their test kitchens. He said,

At this stage, […] all of this looks so edible and so nice — but then, it looks familiar. The skill here, I think, is going to be in maintaining as much of that presentation as we can when it becomes a sludge that we extrude into that [outer shell].

As it happens, even the initial prototype versions of the snack made in the test kitchens did not go over well with consumers — the British housewives who sampled the snacks agreed that they were too messy, and were not suitable for eating without knife and fork.

To address this problem, the food technologists decided to move away from the baked croissant cone to an extruded product, perhaps made with a newly-developed cooker-extruder. And, because the flavors of the fillings did not stand up to the high temperatures needed for pasteurization, they decided to enhance the fillings with natural and artificial flavors — or, as they say in Britain, “nature equivalent” flavors.

Slowly, step by step, driven by the problems they faced, the food technologists moved ever further away from the “healthy, natural, nutritious” food that they had intended to produce, and created a Frankenstein’s monster.

What went wrong? It is the curse of the scientist, of the person with a reductionist world-view: taking care of the minutiae, without keeping an eye on the holistic big picture. What seems tragic to me here is that the ideas that the food technologists used are ones that I use myself all the time while cooking, ideas that I think are in fact necessary in order to cook well and to be comfortable in the kitchen.

You taste the sauce, and note that it is not sharp enough, so you think of acidic ingredients that you can add: lemon juice? vinegar? You want to make some hash with your kale, but you have no potatoes, so you think of substitute starches — leftover rice, or pasta… or maybe you quickly toast some bread and cut it into small cubes. Solving problems like an engineer is part what you do when you adapt recipes on the fly.

But with too many substitutions, too many improvisations, you might create a dish that is not recognizably connected to what you walked into the kitchen thinking of. It’s OK to think of the whole as being the sum of its parts; but little changes to each of the parts can add up to a big change for the whole.

The marketers at PA Designs came up with several names and packaging options for the extruded product the food engineers eventually produced. The high-end option was “Mousse en Croûte.” An option meant to appeal to British tradition was “Mrs. Palfrey’s Cracked Wheat Savouries.” The name they eventually settled on was “Crack-a-Snack.”

I don’t know whether Crack-a-Snacks were ever actually produced in England. But the concept of an extruded tube filled with a savory filling found its way to the United States in the form of Combos®; this television ad introduces them to an innocent nation, while suggesting that the cheesy filling is inserted by hand. Nowadays, when I see the packages of Combos® on display in the gas station mini mart, I always think to myself: Hmm, mousse en croûte.

(Here is some extra bonus material about the Nova documentary. First, a review in New Scientist of the Channel 4 documentary; second, a review from the Los Angeles Times of the Nova episode; and finally, perhaps only available until the lawyers from WGBH in Boston notice that it exists… the final 35 minutes of the Nova episode, ripped from a Betamax tape recorded in 1988 from a KQED San Francisco broadcast.)

Image of Combos® snacks taken by the author. Featured image: Detail from Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature, engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831. More information here.

Bowie, Joyce, Chaucer

David Bowie died yesterday.

He was never really part of my musical universe. I was aware of him, and heard his music on the radio, but he was not one of my go-to musicians.

And yet his death has got me thinking. I’ve been moved by the tributes given to him by friends who did not fit in when they were young, friends who found strength and support from a musician who defied gender expectations.

Two references from literature have been running through my mind all day, one concerning the very personal influence a person can have, and one the very public.

The first is from James Joyce’s The Dead. Over the course of an evening at a party — the night of Epiphany — Gabriel Conroy discovers that his wife Gretta was courted in her youth by a young man named Michael Furey, who died at 17. And yet through all of the intervening years, Michael Furey has remained with her; the memory of him returns to Gretta when someone at the party sings a song that he used to sing. The fact that someone long dead could remain so important to his wife disturbs Gabriel, and the story ends with the famous, beautiful passage:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The second reference that has been with me all day is from Chaucer’s The House of Fame. Here the theme is the arbitrariness of fame, how some are remembered and others not. The narrator of Chaucer’s story is taken, in a dream, to see the House of Fame. He finds that it is a palace built upon a hill of ice. As a modern prose translation expresses it:

‘By Saint Thomas of Kent!’ I thought, ‘this is a poor foundation on which to build such a high structure; it should bring little glory to its architect, so save me God!’

Then I saw that half the rock was engraved with the names of people whose lives had been prosperous and their fame widely spread. But the names were difficult to read and one or two letters of each had melted away completely. I began to conjecture whether they might have been melted by heat rather than by the wind. For on the other side of the hill, which faced northwards, were written the names of many famous people from ancient times, yet they were as fresh as the day they had been written, and looked as though they had been engraved in that very hour. But I knew well what the cause was; they were protected by the shade of the palace that stood high above me and were engraved on so cold a place that heat might not deface them.

Some live on because they have touched us personally. Some live on because their names are protected by the shadow of the House of Fame. And some are forgotten.

Rest in peace, David Bowie. May you live on in the lives you have touched.

Image credit: Warwick Goble, from The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Macmillan, 1912).

Living Into…

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 3 January 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

The worship theme for the month of January is “embodiment”. This is an interesting theme for Unitarian Universalists, because UUs have the reputation of being overly intellectual, of living in the mind rather than in the body. Here at Throop, as in many UU churches, worship is usually patterned after the same traditional Protestant service that was practiced by 19th-century Unitarians and their Congregationalist predecessors in New England. One author writes that by 1800 “the usual […] order of service included the opening blessing, followed by a psalm or hymn, a Scripture reading, a prayer and an anthem, the sermon, another prayer, another psalm or hymn, and the closing blessing.” As the 19th century progressed, psalms fell out of favor and more hymns were used. This is essentially the same order of service you hold in your hands! The main differences are in content, not in form — what counts as scripture, and what sources inform the sermon. But what you do during the worship service is the same: You sit and listen to prayers, readings, and sermons, you occasionally get up and sing, and you may have a chance to meditate or pray.

But Unitarian Universalist worship services do not have to be structured like this! I know ministers who have led laughing meditations during service, and ministers who have had the congregation blow soap bubbles throughout the sanctuary; at the annual solstice celebration at First UU San Diego, one of the highlights for many people is an extended period of drumming, which inspires many to ecstatic dance — in the pews, in the aisles, in front of the chancel; and many UU congregations have led “soulful sundown” services that center on music and performing arts. Of course, other traditions give more examples of embodied communal worship: the Pentecostals sometimes speak in tongues; the Shakers tremble with ecstacy; the whirling dervishes, well, whirl.

I will not surprise you this morning with an invitation out of the blue to ecstatic dance, although I’m sure Chris1 would be happy to provide the drumming. As an introvert myself, I know that when I do embodied practices — which, for me, is usually Iyengar yoga — I often prefer privacy. Later on in the service, though, I will be inviting you to participate in a short meditation that involves some physical motion.

Why is our worship like this? Why is it that in public worship in many UU churches, people are more comfortable engaging the mind rather than the body? Part of the reason is certainly tradition — but I would suggest that another part of the answer is because the body is very personal; it is the one piece of the physical world that we claim some control over; our bodies are fundamental to our identities. And engaging in embodied worship in public involves ceding some of that control in a way that can raise up deep emotions, for good or for ill.

As evidence of the deep connection we have with our bodies, I’d like to give some examples of how some primal beliefs and emotions — deep physical responses of enjoyment and of disgust, together with ideas of purity — quickly come into play when we speak of our bodies, and of accepting new things.

Let me start with a story.2

I like many different kinds of cheese. And for my work as a mathematician, every year or two I have to go — or rather, I get to go — to conferences in France. Many years ago, on one of these trips, I was introduced to a cheese called époisses. Wikipedia politely describes this cheese as being “pungent”, and it definitely has a strong odor and flavor. But in my opinion it is a little bit of heaven on earth. Some époisses on a piece of crusty bread? There is nothing else like it.

In the United States it is not legal to sell a true époisses, made with unpasteurized milk. Nowadays you can find a pasteurized version just down the street at Whole Foods, but it’s really not the same. So once, when I was coming back from a conference in France, I decided to take some true French époisses home with me, so I could share the experience with my wife and with friends.3

The day before I left my conference in France, I went to the local cheese shop, and bought an époisses. I asked the clerk if he could wrap the cheese in plastic. “O, non non!” he said. “Les bactéries anaérobies!” Dangerous anaerobic bacteria would flourish if the cheese were wrapped tightly in plastic. So instead, I had it wrapped loosely in paper, and I kept it in the hotel refrigerator overnight. When I left early the next morning, I wrapped the époisses thoroughly with several layers of newspaper for insulation, put the whole package in a paper bag, and then in a plastic sack. I did not put the cheese in my luggage, because I wanted to make sure it stayed cool; instead, I kept it with me as carry-on baggage. On the trans-Atlantic flight I asked the flight attendant for some of the dry ice they use to keep drinks cold; I put the dry ice in one of the layers of newspaper around the cheese, and I wrapped the whole package — cheese, newspaper, dry ice, more newspaper, paper bag, plastic bag — I wrapped it all in my coat, and put the whole thing in the overhead bin.

I sat down next to the colleague I was travelling with and settled in for the twelve-hour flight. My colleague sniffed the air, and asked, with wrinkled nose, “What’s that smell?”

For him, I’m afraid it was a very long flight.

The point is that my colleague and I each have strong reactions to the idea of eating this cheese. To him, it’s too stinky to even consider eating. To me, it is an invitation to bliss. And both of our reactions seem to completely side-step rational thought.

These preferences we have for what foods are delicious, what foods are disgusting, what foods are “clean”, and so forth — these preferences are very personal, and can be hard to overcome or to change. They are deep-seated.

Sometimes, our visceral reactions align with our intellectual choices. I know that some meat-eaters seem to think that vegetarians are all secretly craving some bacon or a nice steak, but that’s not been my experience — most of the vegetarians I know are at best indifferent to the taste of meat, and often are actively repelled by the idea of eating it. Their vegetarianism — whether it comes from an intellectual or an ethical choice, or from a cultural or religious tradition — their vegetarianism matches up with their gut reaction.

And, conversely, for many meat-eaters the taste of a well-cooked steak provides a visceral satisfaction that is not matched by other foods and that is hard to describe in words.

It is very helpful when deep-seated gut reactions align with our higher goals. But whether they align or not, I believe it is good practice to be aware of the part of our reactions that come from our gut, and the part that comes from our minds, and how the two are related. Here’s a story to illustrate this.

As I mentioned, for my work I go to Europe every couple of years. But the first time I went to Europe was in the late 1980s, while I was still a student. I traveled for about a month, staying in youth hostels and using a student Eurail pass to get from place to place. I would take the train to a new city every few days, and see the sights, go to the museums, visit the churches and cathedrals… And in some ways, I felt like I was getting an education in Bible stories and Christian history in the same way that a medieval peasant might have — by seeing the mosaics and stained-glass windows in the local churches.

If you haven’t ever taken an opportunity to look at the stained glass windows here at Throop, I encourage you to do so after the service. The windows on the north side illustrate parables from the New Testament, while those on the south side are based on the Sermon on the Mount; the windows behind me show Mary, Jesus, Saint Mark, and the angels Michael and Gabriel. This is an ancient tradition; the mosaics and windows in European churches and cathedrals also show saints and stories from the Bible, sometimes annotated with highly abbreviated names in Latin or Greek. Part of the embodied experience of visiting these sacred spaces is the coolness of the stone buildings, the muted light through the stained glass, and the shining gold of the mosaics. When I first saw these mosaics and windows, 25 years ago, I could sometimes figure out what the scenes represented, but since I hadn’t been raised in a church and had never read the Bible, many of the stories were unfamiliar to me.

When I visited the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, there was one mosaic outside the main doors that really puzzled me. It showed two men opening up a big wicker basket to show the contents to several men wearing turbans; the turbaned men are turned away in disgust, and one is literally holding his nose. What story is this, I wondered.

It turns out it is not from the Bible — rather, it tells something of the history of Saint Mark’s Basilica itself. The story is that the bodily remains of Saint Mark had long remained in Alexandria, where he is said to have died. But in the 9th century, when Alexandria was under Muslim control, two Venetians took Saint Mark’s relics, put them in a basket, covered them with cabbage leaves and pork, and tried to smuggle them out of the city. The idea was to keep the Muslim customs inspectors from investigating the basket too closely. The trick worked, and the Venetians smuggled the relics to Venice, where they remain to this day.

Who knows whether this is true — and it is certainly an example of people of one faith mocking the traditions and beliefs of another. But the point is that sometimes the things that we have immediate gut reactions to — things that we don’t want to consider or think about — those things can become blind spots.

The residents and civic leaders of many cities like to think of their cities as prosperous, as being places where everyone has opportunities for work, and every life is valued. But when homelessness becomes apparent, when people are sleeping in alleys and on park benches because they have nowhere else to go, too often the reaction is not: How is this happening? What economic and social problems are leading to this? Do we have housing that people can actually afford, and homeless shelters that actually provide safe quiet space?4

No, those questions require taking a problem — a contradiction between what we think of our society and what it actually is — and accepting that this problem exists, internalizing it, as a first step towards solving it. I think that that is one reason why it is so much easier for people to say, “Let’s just pass laws to make sleeping in public illegal.” That keeps the problem external: If we just make those people go away out of sight, we won’t have to think about this difficult problem.

There’s a similar dynamic, I think, with the question of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. As I mentioned in services last month, we face a tension between two things — On the one hand, we have the images of America that we believe in: A nation of immigrants; a place that welcomes those who have been oppressed elsewhere; a country that asks for “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; a country that announces to the world that we will provide refuge when others will not. All of that on the one hand, and on the other: Fear. Fear that among those we welcome, there will be people who will do us harm; fear that we will invite evil into our homes.

Confronting this tension — thinking carefully about our values, and about our fears, and acknowledging the conflict between them — this is hard work. It means we must take the problem inside ourselves, and confront our own contradictions.

It is so much simpler to try to make the problem go away; to think of it as a problem caused by refugees — instead of being a problem within us, that is made evident by the refugees.

That brings us to another question of embodiment, to another meaning of the word: What principles do we want to embody, to live into — our values, or our fears?

Let me take this back to the idea of spiritual practices involving our bodies. If feeling and acknowledging our own internal conflicts is necessary and yet unsettling, what can we do to make the process easier?

I’d like to close by sharing a movement-based meditation that I was taught by Rev. Kathleen Owens, who says that she learned it from a Buddhist monk in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. I was taught this practice in the context of training for lay ministry; the question was, what do you do if you have been ministering to someone who is facing serious problems; what do you do when you have helped someone deal with their own stress by listening and absorbing some of it yourself? What do you do when you have been upset by what you have heard?

There are a number of physical practices that can help when you need to recenter yourself. One is simply to go outside, and breathe, and touch the ground. Another practice that can help is a meditation that Rev. Owens calls “three palms”. If you are willing, I would like to teach this to you now, so that you might use it later.

Ideally, this is a standing meditation, so if you are willing and able, please stand. If standing is not good for you, don’t worry; you can do this seated as well. As you are willing and able, stand up straight, tall but comfortable. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and keep your knees loose, and unlocked. Press your toes gently into the floor to create a slight arch under the toes. Leave your arms at your side. Now:

  1. Face your palms outward. With an inhalation, slowly raise your arms away from your sides and up to almost together over your head.
  2. As your arms reach the top of the arc, exhale; let your middle finger tips touch one another, then the rest of the fingers, then the bottom edge of your palm, leaving an opening between your palms.
  3. Inhale while lowering your arms and hands to a resting position in front of your mouth and throat. Rest here and exhale.
  4. Inhale as you continue to lower your arms and hands down until they reach a position in front of your heart. Exhale and rest.
  5. Inhale, and with your palms together, turn your fingertips away from your body and towards the floor. Rest your hands in front of your navel, and exhale.
  6. Inhale as you extend your arms and hands down, and separate your arms back to your sides. Exhale and rest.

Repeat this two more times.

After the third time, stand quietly and breathe deeply for a minute. Then release.

May your mind and your body find connection with one another, and may you know peace.

Photo credit: The author. (Warped panorama of the interior of Sainte Chapelle.)

  1. Our percussionist. 
  2. A composite of several different events. 
  3. These are current topics in Los Angeles. You can search the Los Angeles Times for articles about the recently-passed homeless ordinances. Here’s a religious perspective on the issue.