Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Introducing the Fundamental Food Groups

We have elsewhere lamented that, of the (at most) half-a-dozen things they taught us in elementary school, the only one that turned out to be of any use in later life was the rhyme that mentions the date of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas (“In fourteen-hundred ninety-two...") -- and even that has now subsided into uselessness, since we are now forbidden to celebrate or even mention C*******, and are supposed to celebrate Sacagawea (or Nelson Mandela) instead.

Anyhow, among that scant half-dozen was a listing of the basic food groups.  According to the taxonomy taught by the Travell Elementary School of Ridgewood, New Jersey, ca. 1958, these are just three, classified as to whether they make you





(I kid U not.  Your Eisenhower-era tax dollars at work.)   This nicely mnemonic scheme turns out not to be endorsed by any major nutritional or endocrinological group operating outside of a kindergarten.  The only reason I even remember it is that, to the class’s immense satisfaction,  the only food said to be a member of all three said groups was …  ice cream. -- Not making this up, though our parents probably thought we were when, on the strength of this doctrine, we requested ice cream for breakfast.

Since that time, we have all been exposed to various supposed “basic food groups”, often contradicting one another, annoying because generally in the context of a harangue by food nags, and none of them as easily memorable as the one they taught us in school, whose only defect lay in the fact that it is false.


Well!   Just today I encountered a new and highly improved scheme of basic food groups,  offered by  Professor C.H. Taubes, in his article (which I commend to you and your children) “Differential Topology”, in Timothy Gowers, ed., The Princeton Companion to Mathematics (2008), p. 399.   He writes as follows:

The orientable, compact,
connected, topological,
two-dimensional manifolds

are in one-to-one correspondence
with a collection of fundamental foods:
the apple;
the doughnut;
the two-holed pretzel;

(You with me so far?)

the three-holed pretzel;
the four-holed pretzel;
and so on.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  What’s with all the pretzels already?  But surely such topologically unique individuals  deserve to be noticed separately -- it’s nothing like the overly detailed vocabulary of this that and the other trivially different shapes of pasta, most of them homeomorphic to each other anyway.

The Fourth Fundamental Food (Euler characteristic:  -4)


A word on the rhetorical aspect of that slogan,  “Go/Grow/Glow”.
The taxonomy it introduced was in every respect worthless, and probably understood as such  even by the teacher.   The rhyming slogan had the advantage of being mnemonic, but, unlike the rhyme about Columbus in fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, it itself contains no information, so its retention in memory -- lo this half-century or more -- serves no purpose.  Why then trot it out in the first place, and why does it hang on in the mind?

Largely, I think, the purpose of the slogan was the slogan itself, the sheer aesthetics of its combined rhyme and alliteration;  that it pretended to categorize anything  was incidental -- indeed, instead of being used for food groups, it could equally well (or better) serve to label broad areas of Things We Do in School.   Its effect upon the pupils was not informative or even cognitive, but more like a jingle chanted while doing calisthenics.

A comparable example from German history, presenting the fundamental tripartite order of society, by social function:

            Nährstand, Wehrstand und Lehrstand

Workers, soldiers, and intelligentsia, basically;  but no-one needed the rhyme to be reminded of that.

Or the celebrated (and now denigrated) formula for the proper concerns of a decent German Hausfrau:

            Kinder, Küche, Kirche

That’s a good one;  its rhythmic regularity, its consonantal certainty, probably served to buttress, in society’s mind, the very virtues it was advocating.


  1. The four fundamental food groups are, in order of importance:

    1. This is madness -- MADNESS !!
      What about alcohol ??????