Thursday, August 20, 2009

[Always seeking new arenas for mathematics in everyday life, today's segment is a new short story with math as a central theme. Enjoy!]

"Mama's New Recipe"

Mama was cooking again. No matter that it was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon with summer approaching. And no matter that Aunt Linda from across the street wanted her to come out front to chat about the new daffodils that just came up around the mailbox. Yes indeed, Mama’s cooking was top of her list, and the flowers and Aunt Linda would just have to wait a while.

I secretly loved to watch Mama in her kitchen. Old fashion New Hampshire cooking was in her blood, passed on from Grandma Wilson and years beyond. I had a habit of trying to figure out how she knew just what portions to use to make everything taste so right. Mama would use words like “dash” and “smidgen” when she sprinkled the oregano on the spaghetti. But I wanted to know the exact measurements of each ingredient. I wanted to know the formula for spaghetti. Mama always said I was such a curious child.

But I was afraid to let Mama know why I tried to figure out the measurements. She’d think I was at those math books of mine again, and she’d tell me again for the thousandth time, “Catherine, you know that math isn’t a lady-like thing to be poring over. You’re already fifteen years old and you should be doing something that your future husband will appreciate like learning to sew, and cook.”

Mama was real old fashion that way, and she thought she was looking out for me, but I didn’t pay her no mind. I didn’t care what Mama said about my math, and I didn’t listen to Miss Mason my teacher either when I’d raise my hand in geometry class ahead of the boys. I can just hear Miss Mason now, “Oh now Catherine, don’t show up the boys. Let them have a chance to answer some questions. Ya keep on doing that, you won’t find a husband in all of Dover.”

Mama had a big problem lately with her cooking though. She promised to host the next big family Father’s Day party at our house. Even though Daddy passed on a year and two months ago, Mama volunteered in front of all the rest. I didn’t understand why we’d have a party for Father’s Day when we didn’t even have a father. But Mama thought better, and wanted to do something to remember Daddy. But the problem I was telling you about was that Daddy’s death was a big surprise, and poor Daddy left Mama with barely enough to keep the house going, and this big party was going to cost a shiny dime for Mama and me.

Mama wanted to serve some of her special recipe smoked New Hampshire ham with potatoes, carrots, and turnips. But to feed all those people, we’d need several of those hams. Well, I’m old enough to know hams aren’t cheap and that we can’t afford them. So Mama stayed up late one night, checking her recipes and the checkbook, trying to figure out how we could make it so. She kept counting the number of people, and figuring so many people per ham. But it just wouldn’t work out, and she sat there shaking her head with that worried brow of hers. What she wanted to serve would just cost too much. I felt sorry for Mama and her big plans.

I wanted to help Mama so badly, but I’m just a kid. What could I do? Still, I thought hard and long one night after Mama went to bed, and came up with something that might help.

Last year in algebra class I was way ahead of the class and those boring word problems like “If Tom ran twice as fast as Chuck, …” I was sneaking a peek in the book I borrowed from the college library called “Number Theory.” I loved the math books I got from the college because they opened up a whole new world for me, with all the strange and mysterious names and words in them like “Riemann’s Hypothesis,” “Goldbach’s Conjecture,” and “Zeta Functions.” I wanted to figure it all out so much that my head would burn. But to me it was fun, and Mama couldn’t understand that.

Anyway, that night I remembered something I read in that number theory book, something about “partitions” which were used by famous mathematicians in figuring out interesting things about prime numbers. I read that this was a favorite topic of an Indian mathematician named Ramanujan who lived around 1919. My gosh, can you believe somebody that lived that long ago could help solve Mama’s cooking dilemma?

Partitions were easy enough to figure out. You take a whole number like 15 and think of all the ways you can add up smaller numbers to equal 15. Like 5 + 4 + 3 + 1 + 1 + 1 equals 15, but so does 6 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 1. It turns out there’s 176 different ways to add up numbers that equal 15. That’s what got me to thinking about Mama’s predicament.

Mama always split her recipes in equal portions, but I knew that Uncle Andy eats a lot more than Aunt Donna, or any of their kids. It goes the same with the other families too. What if we used partitions to help Mama divide up her special Father’s Day dinner for all the family? But if I told Mama what I thought of, she’d just tell me I was being silly. No sir, I had to let Mama to figure this out on her own.

The night before the big party, Mama set out the large one-size-fits-all dishes she saved for special occasions, and then went to bed early because she was going to be cooking all the next day. After I could tell Mama was fast asleep, I tip-toed into the kitchen and took out some other dishes for the next day and set the big dining table. I put a big dish for the adults who would eat a lot, smaller sized dishes for some others, and real small dishes for the kids. There were five sizes of dishes in all, and the size of each dish matched the numbers in the partition I had figured out was the best size for our family. Now, the table didn’t look too nice with all those different sized plates, because some of them didn’t even match, but I hoped that when Mama saw the table in the morning, a big ‘ol bell would ring for her.

The next morning, I made sure I was up eating breakfast before Mama passed by the dining room. You know what the first thing Mama said to me was? She said “Gee thanks Catherine, but doesn’t that table look nice. Thanks for helping out your old mother with our big Father’s Day bash.” Then she stared at those plates, all different size and designs. She went into the kitchen, and then came back to look again. I kept my head down in my cereal bowl, watching Mama out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, I could see the bell ringing in her head, and then she put out a big smile like she made an important discovery.

Our dinner was wonderful that Father’s Day, and everyone had a great time with the family and all the little kids playing bocce ball out in the yard. Mama was proud we could host the party, and everyone had “just the right amount to eat.” Nobody even mentioned the odd collection of plates, but I was beaming the whole time because I knew that my math had saved the day.

Aunt Linda was the last one to leave that night, after helping Mama and I clean up the mess. I followed Aunt Linda out to the porch and gave her a big kiss goodbye. I’ll never forget what Mama said after I shut the door, “Now Catherine, just remember this dinner tonight as proof about how important cooking is for your future family. Just keep away from those math books!” My big grin was hard to hide though, thinking about Mama’s new recipe.

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