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Gene Weingarten: Circumference of newer plates adds pi to waists

WASHINGTON — A California company is offering a new product named Big John. It's an extra-wide toilet seat with a high-load-bearing buttress beam guaranteed to handle up to 1,200 pounds. It solves the growing problem of toilets ripping away from the walls while in use. This product is selling like hotcakes (a foot-high stack of them, smothered in butter and high-fructose corn syrup).

My point is, the United States is in the grip of an obesity epidemic. Experts aren't sure what caused it or how to cure it. I am, as it happens.

The startling answer to both questions arrived at my house recently, bubble-wrapped in a box. Inside were six vintage dinner plates I had ordered online. They were 1960s-era Fiesta ware, an inexpensive American brand of china made as thick as a hockey puck in solid colors of the unsubtle sort ordinarily seen only on traffic cones, lollipops, Tonka toys and rain slickers.

I love old Fiesta ware because it is unabashedly ostentatious, nearly indestructible and faintly . . . dangerous. It was manufactured with enough uranium to register on a Geiger counter. Live life on the edge, I say.

Though I bought these dishes for everyday use, most Fiesta ware owners are "housewares collectors" — hobbyists known for a devotion to the identification of, acquisition of, restoration of, appraisal of, cataloguing of, and display of, crap. They are famously intense. Clearly, collectors wrote the Wikipedia entry for "Fiesta (dinnerware)," which is roughly the same length as the Wikipedia entry for "F. Scott Fitzgerald."

Anyway, when I unwrapped the plates, I noticed something odd: They were strangely small. They measured 9.5 inches across, compared with my more modern 12-inch-diameter plates. That difference may not seem like much, but after consulting pi and doing some radius-related geometry, I realized the modern plates have almost 1.5 times the surface area of the '60s-era plates.

I e-mailed the maker of Fiesta ware. They confirmed: It's an industry-wide phenomenon. Most manufacturers, including them, went to larger-diameter plates in the 1980s. Can it be coincidence that the 1980s happen to be exactly when we totally lost control of our waistlines? From 1984 to 1994, Americans collectively gained a billion pounds. Men, on average, weigh 17 pounds more than they did in the late '70s; women, 19.

I think you see where I am going here. But, being an annoying, whiny nitpicker with a big behind, you are getting all defensive, and are questioning my science. You are thinking: Wait a minute! People aren't sheep! We're not idiots! We don't eat more just because we can fit more on our plates!

And that's where you are wrong. All sorts of consumer studies have confirmed that people will eat more if served more, including one spectacular study at Cornell University in which subjects were given a bowl of soup with a secret hose attachment that kept replenishing the bowl from the bottom. Yes, compared with control groups, they gorged themselves.

This is hard to battle from the outside, because our culture of consumption bombards us with lard. When Pizza Hut couldn't heap enough calories onto its product using just fat and oil, it had the brilliant idea of stuffing the crust with cheese. Chili's has just launched the ironically misnamed "bottomless lunch" — free refills — under the heading "Moderation Is for Sissies."

But when safely at home, I now have my Fiesta ware. At our first dinner with it, I noticed there weren't as many chicken wings on my plate as I was accustomed to. So I piled more on. But the resulting mountain of meat made me feel like Henry VIII. So I unpiled the plate and ate less.

If the Fiesta ware company is smart, they'll read this column and consider retrosizing their product. But they'll need a high-priced company spokesdork, like that Jared guy.

I'd be happy to step up to the plate.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online at noon Nov. 30 at www.washingtonpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Circumference of newer plates adds pi to waists 11/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 6:58pm]

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