STRANGE BUT TRUE- Dining tip: Why you should order the sweetbreads


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. In an unfamiliar restaurant, could an understanding of economics help you decide which menu items to order?–W. Puck

A. Despite the daunting plentitude of choices, you need not feel completely lost, says Tyler Cowen in Discover Your Inner Economist. At a fancy restaurant ($50 and up for a dinner), ask yourself: "Which item am I least likely to want? Which sounds least appetizing?" Then order that item.

The logic here is simple. No item will be on the menu long without good reason. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.

Take the case of "monkfish." It's hard to make good monkfish: Most people and most restaurants shouldn't even try.

"I don't try," write Cowen. "But when it is paraded with pride on the menu, it is usually an excellent entree. The dense and sweet flesh does very well in the hands of an expert chef." Other good bets include game, anything you've never heard of, and most organ meats, especially the nasty-sounding ones. Watch out for the popular-sounding items like roast chicken, since too often they're just okay. Many dining wimps will order roast chicken to experience the familiar. The same with fried calamari: Many people love this, so it will be on many menus no matter what. In general, popularity suffices, but it doesn't hit the highest peaks of taste. So, in summation, says Cowen, "Order the ugly, and order the unknown."

Q. Live organ donors can contribute a kidney, skin, bone marrow, part of the liver or pancreas or intestines, or part or all of a lung. But how about the heart? Are there ever living heart donors?–R. Jarvik

A. Living heart donors do occur but only rarely, perhaps a few per year at most, says University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, transplantation surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Punch. To understand it, take two patients: Joe has bad lungs but the surgeons would prefer to transplant him with a heart and lungs together. To do this, Joe's heart and lungs have to be removed, and they are replaced with the heart and lungs from a recently deceased donor. Joe's lungs are, of course, no good to anyone–that's why he needed a transplant– so they are discarded. Joe's heart, however, is fine and can be given to someone with a bad heart. Bill has a bad heart and needs a heart transplant. When Joe's heart and lungs are removed, his heart can then be transplanted into Bill, whose own heart can then be removed and discarded. Recap: That's two living patients, one deceased organ donor, and skillful surgeons versed in this medical legerdemain known as "domino transplant." Amazing!

Q. What's some pain relief you must really believe in?–M.B. Eddy

A. Researchers have begun exploring what might be termed "faith-based analgesia," where striking a religious state of mind in devout Catholics triggered brain processes associated with substantial relief from physical pain, says Bruce Bower in Science News magazine. While viewing classic religious images, the Catholics who were subjected to uncomfortable hand shocks reported feeling less pain than did atheists or agnostics under similar circumstances. Functional MRI (brain imaging) showed a change in the brain activity of these volunteers only while they looked at the religious icons.

"What's exciting is that this new study shows a neural mechanism by which religious belief affects pain perception," says Duke University psychiatrist Harold Koenig. Relief was accompanied by vigorous activity in a part of the brain associated with emotional detachment and control over pain, much as for placebo treatments.

Q. Where does weather come from?–A. Roker

A. From the sun, whose energy falls unevenly on the round Earth, more in some places like the tropics, less near the poles, says University of Oklahoma meteorologist Joshua Wurman. The winds of the atmosphere blow to even out the temperature, often redirected by mountain ranges and altered by oceans. The Earth's spin causes winds to rotate in peculiar ways, going clockwise (as seen from above) around high pressure systems and counterclockwise about lows in the northern hemisphere. The heat from sunshine evaporates water from the Earth's surface, with some condensing as it rises and cooling to form clouds, rain, and snow, and powering powerful thunderstorms. In this fundamental sense, every day is a "sunny" day.

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Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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