In recent months there has been no escape from the numbers representing the toll taken on life and lives by the pandemic: those facts and figures regularly appear on the cable news outlets – and in the UDC. Sports channels have had few scores to scroll across the bottom of my TV screen; but any time I tune into or flip past CNBC, the same screen immediately fills with all manner of graphs and digits.
It all makes scant difference to me. I am simply not a numbers person. My mind spends almost every waking moment – and some of the sleeping ones, too – immersed in letters and words. Should a random integer somehow seep into my consciousness, my eyes glaze over and my brain shifts into neutral. So I was taken by complete surprise last week when I ran into a bunch of numerals that actually piqued my interest.
Although cooking ranks second, right after numbers, on my list of personal weaknesses, I do occasionally indulge in the culinary arts by watching Bobby Flay or one of the Top Chef contestants whip up epicurean delights from ingredients pretty much unavailable in a typical grocery store. It was by pure happenstance, then, that I heard an Italian chef mention the existence of 1200 shapes of pasta: finally, a statistic I could sink my teeth into – so to speak – one that practically begged to be googled.
The lady’s claim was essentially borne out – with the usual stipulations and exceptions, of course. There are actually 300+ noodle configurations, many with multiple names based on regionality; simple multiplication then brings us to the original 1200 figure. And all those shapes are grouped into the pasta categories of long, short, and stuffed.
Of course, the non-existence of Italian heritage in my family tree precludes personal knowledge or handed-down recipes involving any more than the basic forms of lasagna, spaghetti, ravioli, or egg noodles. I did learn, however, as I clicked through names like vermicelli, linguine, manicotti, penne, bowties, and beyond, that pasta shapes are specifically designed to hold and highlight their accompanying sauces appropriately and deliciously.
Be that as it may, the ramifications of the original statistic still fascinate me – I certainly will view my next mac & cheese dish with a more informed palate. As for the multitude of names, I have to agree with that old Italian adage: One man’s gnocchetto is another man’s strascinato.
I trooped valiantly on, ignoring my developing hunger pangs, to digitally explore a similar statement about bread in Germany. America’s paltry fifty kinds of bread produced by a meager 9000 bakeries is simply no match for the corresponding information from my European home-away-from-home. I mean, there are 600 types of bread – not to mention 1200 sorts of pastries and rolls – from 17,000 stand-alone bakeries and 10,000 in-store bakeries. I ask, where is the comparison?
My mouth watering, I further discovered the categories of German breads are largely based on types of grain: rye, wheat, whole grain, and specialty breads. As with Italian pasta, regional names cause overlap. For example, I long ago learned my beloved German rolls known as Brötchen in northern and central Germany are referred to in the south as Semmeln.
Regardless of name, type, or category, I still prefer the variety and texture and color of German bread over my own national baked goods. In fact, it takes me more than a couple of weeks to consume most of a loaf of multigrain bread from the local supermarket. On the other hand, a simple slice of firm black bread or grain-encrusted Vollkornbrot covered with a layer of unsalted butter is a delicacy nowadays rarely available to me.
To divert my attention from my growling stomach, I turned to the numerical aspect of another endlessly fascinating topic: the names people give their children. In 2018 the top ten names for each gender included Liam, Noah, William, James, Oliver, Benjamin, Elijah, Lucas, Mason, Logan and Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, Sophie, Charlotte, Mia, Amelia, Harper, Evelyn. The list seems much more conventional than I would have expected – with nary a trendy Tristan, Tessa, or Trevor to be found.
By the way, the source of the aforementioned list is the Social Security Administration, which annually releases the names from the preceding year on the Friday before Mother’s Day. This year, however, officials postponed the announcement “out of respect and honor” for those affected by COVID-19.
And there is one other little name tidbit. Over the past century, Michael has been the most popular boy’s name, appearing in the first spot 44 times. For baby girls, Mary has topped the list 37 times.
Before I headed to the kitchen for a snack, I could not resist checking for a few more number-based facts of the intriguing kind. I found that at public universities in France, average yearly tuition costs $190. The longest wedding veil ever worn measured 23,000 feet, a whopping 63½ football fields. The typical American high school graduate will have taken approximately 100 mandatory standardized tests since preschool days. Collectively, Americans receive 2.5 billion robocalls each month.
Now, as I try to stave off starvation with a less-than-spectacular piece of soft American brown bread spread with salted butter, I feel my fleeting fascination for numbers fading fast. One last item of trivia, in fact, contains no numbers: Queen Elizabeth owns all the swans in England…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.