Hugo Future Imperfect Slim

Samuel Workman

Professor, Data & Statistical Consultant, West Virginian

Cooler Geometry and COVID-19

How Food Bends the Arc of Time

Samuel Workman

5 minutes read

Like many in the academy, I am lucky. Since self-isolating beginning March 10, my family has lived out of our freezer—chocked full of beef and pork (oddly no chicken, but more on that below). How our freezer is full, and its contents, are what lead me to this short dispatch. The convergence of the pandemic, my upbringing, and oddly, the geometry of coolers, have bent the arc of time and transported me to a simpler life I left long ago. But first, why is my freezer full?

Long Ago and Far Away

Much of the talk around COVID-19 and food involves notions of resiliency and self-sufficiency, of empowerment through providing your own food. I grew up on a small farm in West Virginia. When I was young, we simultaneously raised cattle, pigs, chickens, apples, cherries, and later, Christmas trees (though these are little help in a pandemic). In those days, I never ate NY strip, Ribeyes, or filet mignon. We sold those cuts for money we sorely needed. Instead, we ate pot roast, short-ribs, and ground meat. We sold the pork chops and ate pork butt. These cuts of beef and pork are the core of long, slow cooking processes. They foster patience and tether families together over the production and eating of a meal.

As the pandemic alters daily routines, I realize how far from that experience I had gotten. I’m a professor. In general, I have the means to enjoy those “choice” cuts I never had when I was young. With means, comes motive. My wife and I are generally ‘foodies’ and will try a great many things we never had access to as kids. The result is that the menu of my childhood, and the feelings of family and emotions surrounding it, are sometimes distant. One’s early development always leaves its mark, however. COVID-19 has brought these ways of life to the fore for me once again.

Cooler Geometry and Menus

I realize many of the things I learned out of necessity I carry on without the need. Once I moved to Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to purchase a house back in West Virginia very close to my parents and the family farm. We go back to visit 3–5 times per year, and it’s nice to get back to my roots. Part of this is raising cattle and pigs for fresh, farm-raised, unadulterated meat to eat throughout the year. Is this efficient? No. But, with each visit to my family’s farm, my wife and I get to pack a car full of coolers of the best meat raised anywhere on earth.

These trips mean two things. First, optimizing the placement of coolers in the car. Cooler placement is easy because the geometry of coolers and cars demand similar calculations. Second, optimizing the placement of fresh frozen meat in the coolers for the drive back to Oklahoma. The geometry of coolers and meat are divergent, to put it mildly. This second dimension of cooler geometry is essential because it dictates the shapes of beef and pork that will be more efficient in terms of space. Finally, the trip dictates the size of the cut - smaller cuts are riskier to transport. In other words, Chateaubriand stays at the family farm, because short ribs are more “shaped” like the cooler. One can pack more short-ribs, pot-roast, brisket, and other cheap (and large) cuts with more efficiency than filet mignon, ribeyes, or new york strip steaks. Our freezer is full of these slow, hardier cuts of beef and pork. (Cooler geometry also explains the lack of chicken in my freezer - one cannot pack “round” chickens in a rectangular cooler very efficiently.)

London Broil

COVID-19 arrived to find us freshly returned from a visit to West Virginia, and a freezer full of meat whose contents were dictated by the efficiencies of cooler geometry. Usually, we space these meals out between visits. But, the virus and desire to self-isolate has nudged us to live from the freezer as much as possible. The result is that I have spent evenings reacquainting myself with the sights, smells, and sounds of my youth in the kitchen and around the table. The cooks are long and slow, with plenty of time for conversation, reflection on the day, and prospective and hopeful assessments of tomorrow. It’s remarkable because these are the conversations I had as a youth with my father and grandfather that ultimately lead me to become an academic, a professor. These conversations had dwindled before the arrival of COVID.

Bending the Arc of Time

As I carry on my daily regimen of Zoom meetings with students and colleagues, there is a general sense of unease or a longing for connectedness that is missing as we all try to do our due diligence in social distancing. It is sometimes guilt-inducing for me, because more than anything, the way of life COVID has induced is the life that made me. I find an odd comfort in staying at my small house and living life slowly, and if I am honest, better.

Amid the tragedy of COVID, there is a lot of talk about how we will live life afterward. If nothing else, COVID has shown us that many of the things we think are indispensable are, in fact, entirely dispensable (looking at you faculty meetings and project management). These things left unchecked push out what indeed is indispensable. Without a sense of community around the table, we’ll never foster one in what lays beyond.

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Academics, Data, Life on the Mountain