My daughter and I are reading The Phantom Tollbooth, which marked a 50th anniversary in 2011. It’s a very clever children’s book, which demands the reader pay attention to how language is used. It’s a great book that I wish I had read as a kid. I was exposed to a portion of it through the Childcraft books that my Mom got for us back in the days when there were still door to door encyclopedia salesmen. One of the annuals was titled “Mathmagic” and was easily one of my favorite reference books as a child. I read every page of it several times. The chapters from Phantom Tollbooth that take Milo and his traveling companions to Digitopolis were included, and I have never forgotten the story of Subtraction Stew. We’re just reaching that point in the book now, so I thought it was time to share an excerpt. It was written with clever wordplay in mind, but I definitely apply this scene as a parable of the modern processed food diet, one which I followed for years. If you remove all the fiber from food, and refine the sugar like cocaine, surprise surprise, people will overeat and never feel satisfied.
From Chapter 15 – This Way To Infinity
“Please have another portion,” said the Mathemagician, filling their bowls once more; and as quickly as they’d finished the first one the second was emptied too. “Don’t stop now,” he insisted, serving them again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
“How very strange,” thought Milo as he finished his seventh helping. “Each one I eat makes me a little hungrier than the one before.”
“Do have some more,” suggested the Mathemagician, and they continued to eat just as fast as he filled the plates.
After Milo had eaten nine portions, Tock eleven, and the Humbug, without once stopping to look up, twenty-three, the Mathemagician blew his whistle for a second time and immediately the pot was removed and the miners returned to work.
“U-g-g-g-h-h-h,” gasped the bug, suddenly realizing that he was twenty-three times hungrier than when he started. “I think I’m starving.”
“Me, too,” complained Milo, whose stomach felt as empty as he could ever remember: “abd I ate so much.”
“Yes it was delicious, wasn’t it?” agreed the pleased Dodecahedron, wiping the gravy from several of this mouths. “It’s the specialty of the kingdom – subtraction stew.”
“I have more of an appetite than when I began,” said Tock, leaning weakly against one of the larger rocks.
“Certainly,” replied the Mathemagician; “what did you expect? The more you at, the hungrier you get. Everyone knows that.”
“They do?” said Milo doubtfully. “Then how do you ever get enough?”
“Enough?” he said impatiently. “Here in Digitopolis we have our meals when we’re full and eat until we’re hungry. That way, when you don’t have anything at all, you have more than enough. It’s a very economical system. You must have been quite stuffed to have eaten so much.”
“It’s completely logical” explained the Dodecahedron. “The more you want, the less you get, and the less you get, the more you have. simple arithmetic, that’s all. Suppose you had something and added something to it. What would that make?”
“More,” said Milo quickly.
“Quite correct,” he nodded. “Now suppose you had something and added nothing to it. What would you have?”
“The same,” he answered again, without much conviction.
“Splendid,” cried the Dodecahedron. “And suppose you had something and added less than nothing to it. What would you have then?”
“FAMINE!” roared the anguished Humbug, who suddenly realized that was exactly what he’d eaten twenty-three bowls of.
“It’s not as bad as all that.” said the Dodecahedron from his most sympathetic face. “In a few hours you’ll be nice and full again – just in time for dinner.”
“Oh dear,” said Milo sadly and softly. “I only eat when I’m hungry.”
“What a curious idea,” said the Mathemagician, raising his staff over his head and scrubbing the rubber end back and forth several times on the ceiling. “The next thing you’ll have us believe is that you only sleep when you’re tired.”