Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hidden in Plain Sight

Sharon Wildwind

Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Poe, Happy birthday to you. Poe would be 201 this year.

To celebrate his birthday, I’m going to talk about Poe’s story, The Purloined Letter. There will be a spoiler later on, so if you’re planning to read TPL soon, stop here. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Before we get to the letter, I want to talk about salt.

In the latest issue of Canadian Nurse, I found out more about salt than I wanted to know.

Yes, I know it’s bad for you. Yes, I read labels. In fact, some days I spend as much time reading labels as I do mysteries. What I didn’t know is that some food manufacturers are playing games with those labels.

The U.S.D.A. and Health Canada have set a general standard of 2,400 mg of salt per day for healthy adults. Back in 1990 the United States’ mandatory Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, used that 2,400 mg base for labels.

In our current culture of restaurant eating and prepared foods, people are likely to actually consume 4,800 to 5,000 mg/day, twice the recommended limit. To make matters worse, many researchers and health care practitioners now say that the healthy limit should be 1,500 mg/day.

I went rooting in my kitchen cupboard:
Fresh tomatoes—no salt unless you add some in cooking or at the table.
Plain tomato paste (the unflavored kind)—according to the label no salt, so the same as fresh tomatoes.
Commercial tomato sauce—610 mg of salt per 1/2 cup serving.

We’re going to do some arithmetic, so sharpen your pencils.

Let’s go back and look at that tomato sauce. On the label it says that the 610 mg of salt per 1/2 cup serving = 8% of the daily recommended salt intake.

According to the Canadian Nurse editorial, manufacturers are diddling with the values by changing serving sizes. A guy or gal in marketing looks at 610 mg and decides that if the salt content looked lower, more people would buy the product. So the manufacturer changes the serving size. The label now reads: 305 mg of salt per 1/4 cup serving = 8% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Are you really going to limit yourself to 1/4 cup of tomato sauce? I’m not.

I’ll dump the 1 1/2 cups of sauce from that jar into a pot, heat it, and serve out equal portions for my husband and myself. We’ll each get about 3/4 of a cup.

3/4 cup of sauce = 915 mg of sodium, and using the healthy base of 1,500 mg of salt per day, I’ve got 61% of my daily allotment on my spaghetti.

When it comes to salt, here is a quick way to evaluate a food in relation to the 1,500 mg base: Double the number of mg of salt shown because you’re likely to eat a larger serving than the size on the label. Every 150 mg = 10% of a healthy daily salt intake. 300 mg = 20%; 450mg = 30%; 600 mg = 40% and so on. You decide where to draw the line.

I promised we’d talk about The Purloined Letter, so here we are. Minister D— knew the police would think that the thief who stole the letter would hide it, so he put it in plain sight. He knew that the letter was supposed to have a certain appearance, so he refolded it into a different shape and added a new bit of sealing wax, rather like information on food labels is being reshaped and hidden in plain sight.

Bending the parameters on a food label may be a bad idea, but bending them in a story is a good idea, particularly when we have to hide those pesky clues and red herrings. If you want to hide something in plain sight, here are three suggestions.

Surround it with emotions. If the reader is laughing or crying, they are less likely to see what you’ve slipped past them.

Trivialize the information. I read a story in which a woman made a big deal of the summer that a movie star rented the lake cottage next to the one her family owned. She pulled out her scrapbook of that summer, ad nauseam. Characters would run from her rather than ask a single question about that summer. Because you’re smart writers you’ve probably already guessed that the scrapbook and the story were fakes. In reality, she spent summer in a different part of the country, having an affair with the murder victim.

Focus on the wrong problem. I know someone who is a skilled mediator. He was having no luck mediating between farmers who pastured their cows on the far side of a river, and the railroad that had forbidden them to walk their cows across a trestle. One day, as he was sitting by the river, he realized he’d been working on the wrong problem. The problem wasn’t the railroad’s refusal to reopen the trestle to cows, it was how to get the cows across the river. The farmers and the railroad shared the cost of building a small, flat-bottomed rope ferry, and the cows went back and forth every day, as they always had, only this time on the river instead of over it.

Quote for the week:
Experience teaches you that the man who looks you straight in the eye, particularly if he adds a firm handshake, is hiding something.
~Clifton Fadiman, author and editor (1904 - 1999)

1 comment:

Susan D said...

Good suggestions.

Reminds me of a vintage mystery by Georgette Heyer where one of the characters kept pestering the police and all the other suspects to make themselves useful and find her lost library book. Of course it turned out there was information in the book that revealed the method of the murder, which is why the killer had hidden and then tried to burn the book.