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A Round Pie in a Square Box

Mismatched pairs of simple things can inspire ingenious solutions

Henry Petroski

When I was a child, I enjoyed accompanying my father to the bakery, where I could observe things that I found to be as sweet intellectually as the confections on the shelves were sensually. My appetite for the mechanical devices and gadgets in the place was insatiable. I was fascinated by the slicing machine into which the woman behind the counter placed a full loaf of bread and received a neatly sliced one in return. After lifting the segmented loaf from the machine with two hands, imperceptibly compressing it the way a juggler does a set of cigar boxes that looks to be defying gravity, the bakery woman upended the loaf of precisely aligned slices and balanced it in a vertical position in the palm of one hand while reaching with the other and snapping open the white paper bag into which she would slide the sliced loaf and in which the customer would carry the bread home. To me, indeed, the whole process was the greatest thing since sliced bread itself.

Another operation that captured my attention was the action of placing a pie or cake in a box, which itself first had to be formed from one of the flat sheets of irregularly but deliberately shaped white cardboard that were stacked neatly on a shelf under the counter. First, in plain view of a father and his child, three sides of the latent box were folded up and joined together by a tab-in-slot sleight of hand. Into this partially formed box the pie or cake was partly lowered from the top and partly slid from the front, thereby displacing neither a crumb of crust nor a swirl of icing. With the dessert in place, the last of the box’s sides was raised like the tailgate of a delivery truck and made secure by another tab-in-slot maneuver. As the shopwoman brought the top of the box down to close it, her deft hands kept the flaps from invading the space between the insides of the box and its contents. The flaps were left outside flapping like wings.

The box still had to be secured with cotton string, sometimes plain white and sometimes candy striped. The supply of string was kept on large spools that had the shape of truncated cones and turned on strategically located spindles. I know this because the spools were often kept in plain sight, either right on the work counter or high above it. But no matter from where it was deployed, the string could be played out easily, if noisily, and it was wrapped around the box seemingly with the speed that Superman could circle the Earth. First three or four turns secured the front flap, and then three or four did the same for the side flaps. In preparation for tying the concluding knots, the string was cut with the flick of a finger, which wore a pragmatic steel ring set not with a stone but with a small knife blade shaped like a miniature sickle. When two or more boxes were to be taken home, they were stacked in a tower formation and tied together for the carrying. The only thing that bothered me about the uniting of pies and cakes with boxes and string was that the pies were round and the boxes square.

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