Jesus Christ Supersize? The Growing Last Supper

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There's a restaurant in Champaign, Illinois, that boasts "burritos as big as your head." If there were food rules to live by, the first one would probably be "Don't eat things with beans and cheese that are bigger than your head."

Yet egregiously amusing portion sizes are exploding in the U.S. and many countries abroad. Books like The Portion Teller have documented this over the last 20 to 30 years. But it raises the question, when did the supersizing of life begin?

If art imitates life, one place we might find some clues would be by analyzing the world's most famous dinner—the Last Supper. The event has been a favorite of starving artists for 2,000 years. Yet here's what is particularly interesting about it: none of the three descriptions of it in the New Testament say anything about the food. This would mean that an artist's depiction of the food would be sort of a Rorschach food test of what he thought was normal and appropriate for his day.

My brother—a religious studies professor at Virginia Wesleyan College—and I indexed the sizes of all of the entrees, loaves of bread, and even plates in the 52 most famous Last Supper paintings from the past millennium featured in Last Supper (2000, Phaiden Press), based on the sizes of people's heads. Through plagues and potato famines, the average size of entrees increased by 69 percent, plates by 65 percent, and bread by 23 percent. (The only thing that didn't continually increase with time was the number of wine bottles on the table—that peaked in the apparently party-happy 16th century.)

Interestingly, the 16th century was also the time period that showed the biggest increases in portion size. This bump—along with the general increase over 1,000 years—seems to mirror the economic prosperity and availability of food in Italy, Holland, Germany, and Spain, where these paintings originated. This isn't surprising. As a country becomes more prosperous, food becomes more available and affordable: there are divisions of labor, better distribution infrastructure, and economies of scale.

Perhaps the seemingly recent supersizing of portions around the world is part of a much larger trend. It could be the trend of the more affordable, more available food that comes with prosperity. Most people wouldn't want to give any of this up.

I'm in Taiwan this week, and last night I had dinner with a VP from Goldman Sachs who grew up in a middle-class family in the 1970s. On her birthday, her father would buy her an apple to share with her brother and sister. In 1975, this was a huge treat. Apples were rare in Taiwan; they cost about $20 back then.

That was 35 years ago. Today I'm writing this in a Taipei Burger King. If we were having lunch instead of dinner, she'd be $5.00 away from being able to buy a triple-cheeseburger combo meal. She could even replace the fries with a cut, bagged, preserved apple (which they call "Apple Fries"). No extra charge, and she wouldn't have to wait for her birthday.

Europe has come a long way over the last millennium. Taiwan's come a long way in 35 years. The U.S. has come a long way since it supersized. There's prosperity, and there's more food available to more people for a smaller percentage of their income.

That's something worth celebrating for Passover or Easter. Especially compared to the alternative.

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Brian Wansink (Ph.D.) is the John S. Dyson Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. More

Brian Wansink is the John S. Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University, where he directs the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. He is author of over 100 academic articles and books, including the best-selling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006), along with Marketing Nutrition (2005), Asking Questions (2004), and Consumer Panels (2002). From 2007 to 2009 Wansink was granted a leave of absence from Cornell to accept a presidential appointment as Executive Director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the federal agency in charge of developing 2010 dietary guidelines and promoting the Food Guide Pyramid. Wansink’s award-winning academic research on food psychology and behavior change has been published in the world’s top marketing, medical, and nutrition journals. It contributed to the introduction of smaller “100 calorie” packages (to prevent overeating), the use of taller glasses in some bars (to prevent the overpouring of alcohol), and the use of elaborate names and mouth-watering descriptions on some chain restaurant menus (to improve enjoyment of the food). It has been presented, translated, reported, and featured in television documentaries on every continent but Antarctica.
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