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Puzzle Food


Whenever more than two or three puzzling friends meet, eventually refreshment or some sort of catering is required. I always think that such a group appreciates food and drink in keeping with the monumental tasks at hand, so over the years I have always tried to oblige.

It started simply enough one evening with a simple tray of cheese and biscuits, the cheese, a robust English cheddar, cut in the shapes of pentominoes, and a selection of finest savoury biscuits of different proportions which became popular for impromptu sliding block puzzles. In later days, I also experimented with flap-jack segments, but the friction is a problem.

One evening someone asked for butter to go on the biscuits, which meant at the next puzzle evening, I was able to remove a block of French Butter from the freezer, cut it into almost mystical shapes, interlock them in a crafty way, and so was born the first 'beurre burr'. (I do like bilingual puns, this is my first Anglo-French example, my only other is Anglo-Polish, also food-related, but not connected with puzzling.)

Sugar lumps were another item which I was able to present in various polycube forms, but the hexacube addicts complained that the drinks became too sweet.

One of my most popular Puzzlefood creations has always been the Pineapple Grapple, a super-challenging fruit-assembly which can get tricky (and sticky after a while). Remove the base and the top two inches of the pineapple (this only works with the fresh variety, tinned lumps are not suitable.) Remove all the fruit, leaving the pineapple casing about half an inch thick. Then, with a very sharp knife, and considerable foresight, cut the casing into about 10-15 sections, always cutting between the segments of the casing. Aesthetically no two pieces should be the same, and, in an ideal party, the pieces should form all the members of a mathematically pleasing set. Set the base on a plate. Using a block of foam (such as flower arrangers use) as a support, your guests can then take turns pinning segments of pineapple to the foam block with cocktail sticks. When a guest is unable to place a piece, it is then necessary to backtrack to the most recently placed piece which has not yet been removed. By the time the meal is over, you should have a reconstituted pineapple. I have never yet insulted my guests with a previously used pineapple dissection.

If you must serve tinned pineapple, serve it with cubes of three different contrasting cheeses, on sticks, such that every different combination of 4 cubes is available. This one dish is often large enough to satisfy a large number of puzzlers, and by increasing the number of cheeses and adding (black and green) olives, you may not even need any puzzles at all.

Especially popular at barbecue puzzle gatherings are my 'Corncob Confusions', slices of hot juicy whole corn, sliced in deceptive ways. This particular home-cooked delicacy has been so popular, that it is now available in die-cast plastic, however my ones fit together better, (but the plastic ones don't get stuck in your teeth.)

Various sizes of slices of apple or fried potato can have many Puzzlefood uses. With a central cutout hole, they can be used as disks for an edible Tower of Hanoi, by inserting vertically three Italian-style grissini breadsticks into a ciabatta loaf sliced horizontally. If a dozen slices of apple are used, it is an interesting challenge to see if anyone can transfer them to an adjacent column before the apple starts to go brown. With potato slices, of course, the object is transfer them before they are too cold to eat. Smaller slices can be used for playing pieces in a wide variety of puzzle challenges.

Small squares of cake, with icing numbers are ideal for the 15 puzzle. If the parity problem rears its ugly head, eat the piece with 15 on it.

All the food products mentioned here are probably globally available, but perhaps under different trade names.

Cheeselets and Triangoes are ideal for giving your guests the opportunity to test their tessellation skills, and of course, if all the contents of the pack don't fit, just eat a couple!

French Fries, if cut slightly larger than MacDonalds, and pre-notched, make ideal assembly pieces. I have often presented guests with a delicious version of Bill's Ball-Bearing Burr, with a tasty nut secreted inside.

Not a solo puzzle, but I have always loved the game of Go, and most nations have suitable confectionary to use as stones. This is an ideal game to play with ladies, as they inevitably eat their stones too soon.

Perhaps my most marvelled at culinary puzzle, was a four foot diameter replica of a Stewart Coffin puzzle, made entirely out of 128 self-locking bars of Toblerone. Unfortunately it was a very hot day, and while the puzzle could be dismantled by giving it a gentle spin, it took eight people to reassemble it as it requires a very subtle simultaneous twist and push motion. With the advent of white chocolate Toblerone, I will one day recreate this in two contrasting chocolates.

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier, but slicing a whole cucumber into a dozen irregular one-inch slices for each guest is an excellent icebreaker (more of which later), especially if one piece of each cuke is given to another guest. There isn't anything else worth doing with cucumber as Dr. Johnson once observed. ("Put salt and pepper and dressing on it, then discard it.")

Ice cream spheres of different flavours, or scoops of mashed potato or other root vegetables, pushed onto skewers are excellent for creating the ever-popular pyramid spheres puzzles, and, once again, I have always come up with new designs.

Ice cubes would seem to be an ideal component for puzzle party drinks, but it is almost impossible to get trays with partitions of the right dimensions. Crushed ice was once very popular at a party of puzzlers assembled to try to win the 1,000,000 offered for the first solution to Christopher Monckton's Eternity puzzle. Another problem I have found with ice-cubes (definitely a misnomer, as I pointed out earlier) is that it is surprisingly hard to get the 'cubes' to adhere without using salt, and this addition makes them less attractive in a martini! Again, this idea of mine was modified by a puzzle manufacturer, who designed a 'pack the plastic ice into a plastic tumbler' puzzle.  No elegance at all...

As the evening wears on, and the corkscrew and bottle opener inevitably disappear, the forerunner of the Elverson bottle is always popular. Remove the cork or top, without using any other object, and hence, release the wine or beer hidden inside.

I am always looking for new Puzzle Food ideas, and I will add the worst here.

Bon appetit!! 

This article formed the basis of my presentation at the International Puzzle Party in 2005 in Helsinki, Finland. In the spring of 2005 I was contacted by my good friend Tomas Linden, who asked me to present this idea. While Ive always been amused by the whole idea of puzzle food, I thought that I was alone, and that nobody would share my humour. In fact, ever since this article was first added, only one person had ever commented on it.  To cut a long story short, Tomas persuaded me, and about 150 laughed long and hard during my entire presentation. I have never made so many people so happy at once. Currently, November 2006, I intend recreating the full presentation, with new updates, using the original slides with new and expanded voice-overs.

Puzzle Food

The forgotten branch of Metagrobolgy

by Martin H. Watson
Helsisnki, Finland, July 2005

In the time that I've been collecting puzzles, I've been amazed by the ingenuity that people use to add their own individuality to the designing of mechanical puzzles. Stewart Coffin and Wayne Daniels produce work of stunning technical quality.  Oskar van Deventer has the most unbelievable imagination for new ideas.  Allen Boardman takes us into an almost microscopic world, and I believe that I am the world's only craftsman to combine puzzles and food.

One of the big advantages of Gastrometagrobology, to give it its correct name, is that if a piece doesn't fit, just nibble a bit off the side. If the last tile doesn't fit, just eat it. If you can't free the ring from a puzzle, just bite it off and swallow it.

I'm going to be showing you pictures from my collection, as well as discussing what foods are best for puzzling, and how to prepare them and even a few clues for solving.

Let's look at some real puzzle food.

Cube assemblies from sugar lumps.
Cheese assemblies.
Tomato and Hula Hoop dexterity puzzles
Sliding Pizza Puzzles
Egg Noodle string puzzles
Cheese-slice Tangram sets
Edge-Matching crackers
Bread Stick polyhedra
Chocolate Dip Burr
Satsuma orange pyramid
Mouse and Cheese disentanglement
Mars Bar string puzzle
Bagel & Breadstick Tower of Hanoi

Other Puzzle Food opportunities
Concealed-opening knives.
Trick drinking or serving vessels.
Secret opening refigerator.
Disappearing Waiter.

Other ideas I haven't yet tried
Wolf - Goat Cabbage,
prevent the wolf eating the goat, then cook the goat with the cabbage.

A final warning
Don't ever put slices of cheese in the photocopier.
Remember to take a pich of salt with all the above.

I would also have liked to explain how Dick Hess used salami to prototype his Quarter Pack puzzle, and Oskar van Deventer uses slices of dried marzipan with food colouring until he gets his designs laser-cut. It is also not widely known that The Sandfield Dovetail was first cut in English Cheddar cheese, and that many wire puzzles are actually made from dried spaghetti or egg noodles. In his book 'The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissection' Stewart Coffin said something like "...set your table rip saw at 62.348 degrees and cut several lengths of hexagonal stock."  Forget that, use a blunt knife and a block of English Cheddar.

Indigestion tablets in a secret-opening child-proof pill-box...

Bon apetit !!!

Last updated 1st April each year.

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