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Saturday, December 21, 2013


     It seems that on every visit to a grocery store I make a visit to the deli.  Our usual lunch is a big wrap that we split.  Today, for example, I bought a half pound each of sliced pastrami, roast beef, and mozzarella plus a pound of sliced swiss.  I often buy some salami or hard sausage to use for snacks with crackers and cheese.  In this case I prefer an un-sliced chunk so that I can cut it to suit my needs and the shape of the crackers.  A very interesting thing happens when you ask the young lady behind the counter to cut a one pound piece off the hunk of salami in the display case.  When asked for a pound of sliced meat, they can just sneak up on it one slice at a time.  Of course they often say, "It's just a little over. Is that OK?"  But the idea of a one pound chunk stumps them.  Once, she set the slicer to the maximum width and gave me about five half inch chunks.  Another skittered off to find a supervisor.  Once in a very great while I will find one who will weigh the whole chunk and estimate what fraction would be close to a pound, but this is an exception.
     These kids are not stupid; they just have not faced the problem before.  When I suggest that they weigh the whole piece, they will.  I explain that, if it weighs two pounds, cut it in half.  If it weighs three pounds, estimate where it should be cut to make three equal pieces and cut on one of those points, then wrap up the smaller piece for me.  If it is an odd weight, the mental calculation can be more difficult.  Once, one of the girls handed me a piece that weighed a bit less than 2 1/2 pounds.  I looked at it and said, "Make your cut between the e and the f in beef.  The resulting piece was almost exactly one pound.  To her credit she wanted to talk about how to do that.
     I can recall when my mother would ask my father how much a piece of meat weighed.  These pieces were home butchered and wrapped for the freezer and did not have the grocery labels.  He would grab a quart of milk from the refrigerator and "heft" it to get calibrated.  A quart weighed two pounds.  "A pint's a pound the world around."  Of course that only applies to water, bur milk was close enough for an estimate.  He would then give my mother an estimated weight of the meat that was close enough to choose the cooking time.
     I am not here lamenting the dependence on calculators.  I am saddened by the fact that an intuitive understanding of fractions has been lost.
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