Engineering Alfredo

By Jeffrey Kluger|Wednesday, June 01, 1994
When it came to Italian food, Americans used to play it pretty straight. For most people, pasta meant spaghetti. Period. Occasionally an adventurous soul would add a little supermarket Parmesan--the kind with so many freshness-extending preservatives it had less a shelf life than a half-life--but that was it.

Things started to change in the 1960s with the introduction of SpaghettiOs, a circular pasta product advertised with the singsongy jingle "Uh-oh: SpaghettiOs!" (This was a slight departure from the focus group's reported reaction, which was said to be "Pardon-me-but-it-appears-that-by- some-hideous-mistake-you've-served-me: SpaghettiOs!") SpaghettiOs soon gave way to RavioliOs, which gave way in turn to a wide range of spaghettiesque foods including dinosaur pasta, shark-shaped pasta, Where's Waldo? pasta, and alphabet pasta (can you spell unappetizing?).

But if the United States is being spirited with its spaghetti, frolicsome with its fettuccine, Canada is even more so. Last February, Okanagan University College in Kelowna, British Columbia, held its eleventh annual Spaghetti Bridge Building Contest. The tournament, sponsored by the university and several local engineering and technology associations, is intended to help contestants learn some of the basic principles of architecture and engineering. People are invited to design and build model bridges made entirely of pasta and bring them to the campus where they--the bridges--are judged on strength and overall economy of design.

For a country that's already given the world Kim Campbell, Mike Meyers, and towns with names like Central Patricia, Ear Falls, Flin Flon, Margie, Minnipuka, Mushaboom, Rat Rapids, Wabigoon, and Wawa, a spaghetti bridge contest would seem to be beyond the comedic call of duty. Yet since 1984 Okanagan University College has been rounding up the best spaghetti engineers in the ten provinces and putting them through their pasta paces. This year, in pursuit of drama, local color, and a peek at what might be the world's only al dente architecture, I decided to bundle up and then trundle up to Canada.

Kelowna is located in a mountainous stretch of British Columbia that resembles the northwestern United States except for two tiny differences: the population distribution is about one person per cubic time zone, and of course, the people who live there say "eh?" a lot (as in "Where is everybody, eh?"). The weekend of the contest, however, the Kelowna head count rises dramatically.

"We've been conducting our competition for 11 years," says Garry Gaudet, an Okanagan University College spokesman and a sort of self- appointed Don King of the spaghetti bridge circuit, "and the crowds we attract have been getting bigger and bigger. This year we're hoping to have at least 100 contestants and a couple of times as many spectators. Like every year, I also issued a challenge to MIT, Caltech, and Stanford, but so far I don't think they'll be coming."

Gaudet took me for a walk across the Okanagan campus to the lab where the school's engineers, physicists, and resident pasta experts do their noodling. On the way, he explained the rules of the spaghetti bridge competition. The upcoming event would actually center on two main events. In the first, the Most Functional Bridge contest, competitors would design bridges at least one meter long and made of spaghetti strands with a diameter of no more than three millimeters (okay, that's 39.37 inches and .117 inch, respectively--but don't ask again), joined with glue or epoxy. The bridges would then be tested on their ability to support a bag of gravel weighing exactly one kilogram (2.2 pounds, okay?), for ten minutes. Those entries that survived would be weighed and the lightest one would win.

The next event, the World Open Heavyweight Competition, would be more dramatic. In this one, contestants would be permitted to use any type of pasta they wanted, but the bridges could not tip the scales at more than 750 grams. The weight they would have to support, however, would increase considerably. Bridges entered in this competition would be required to hold loads beginning at 22 kilograms (48.4 pounds!), though, mercifully, they would have to support this weight for only ten seconds. The load would then be steadily increased until all but one bridge had collapsed.

Just how the bridges could hold such weights when most of the pasta I've ever worked with can't even hold a cream sauce was a mystery to me. When Gaudet and I arrived at the Okanagan labs, however, engineering professor Bob Gallant cleared things up considerably.

"Dry pasta," Gallant explains, "supports weight in the same way any other strut or cable supports weight: either through tension or compression. Tension occurs when a load pulls on a weight-bearing member. If you hold one end of a piece of dry spaghetti in one hand and pull on the other end, it will withstand between five and ten kilograms of stress. Compression is a much different matter. If you take the same piece of spaghetti and push it in instead of pulling it out, it will immediately bend and break. The only way pasta can stand compression is if you make the strand shorter. The lower the ratio of height to width, the more compression it can take. Some pieces of tubular pasta have withstood 1,000 pounds of compression without breaking."

In the challenging worlds of engineering and design, the ability to build a suspension bridge puttanesca or a viaduct primavera may not be the fast track to career success. But if pasta architecture is not the most marketable of skills, the folks in Kelowna evidently haven't gotten the word. The spaghetti bridge contest was to be held in a rec room at the Okanagan student union building, and on the morning of the great event there were indeed close to 100 contestants on hand and at least 300 spectators to watch them. The competitors ranged in age from 10 to about 50, and the structures they were carrying ranged in complexity from one that had all the grace and charm of the Golden Gate Bridge to another that had all the grace and charm of a side order of ziti. In the middle of the rec room were four stands resembling parallel bars, each of which could accommodate four bridges. When the signal to begin the Most Functional Bridge Competition was given, most of the contestants swarmed toward the floor, and the first 16 set their models carefully on the stands so that they perched on the bars, with their main spans crossing the gorgelike space in between.

Wandering onto the floor and examining the models closely, I noticed two things: each spaghetti bridge had a metal utility hook screwed into a piece of fiberboard glued to the underside of the roadbed (a taste sensation in any hearty pasta dish), and all the bridges were decidedly not created equal. Most of the structures were truss bridges. In other words, their creators had glued beams of glued-together spaghetti into triangles and then assembled those triangles in a row.

But while many of the contestants took the contest rules to heart and built their bridges out of as little pasta as possible, others missed the point. On each of the four stands was at least one bridge containing enough pasta to feed most of greater Naples. Whether these overzealous designers might have fared better in a less restrictive contest--say a Veal-Parmesan-Caesar-Salad-and-Spumoni-Bridge Competition--was not apparent, but the minimalist spirit of this event was clearly lost on them.

When all the bridges were in place, the contestants at the first stand were handed their promised one-kilogram bag of gravel, tied at the top with a drawstring. At a signal from Gaudet, serving as referee and emcee, they looped the string around the hook with one hand while holding the bag in the other. The judge assigned to the stand then gave the signal for the contestants to drop their bags.

The results at the first stand were not encouraging. One of the four bridges broke immediately, snapping in the middle and falling unceremoniously to the floor. Another lasted about ten seconds before its pasta roadbed and pasta trusses gave up the pasta ghost. The third bridge-- one that contained so much pasta it looked able to support a Cadillac, never mind a kilogram--survived for about two minutes before it went falling down, falling down, falling down. Only the fourth one, a spindly little wisp of a truss bridge, held its own for the full ten minutes without so much as an angel hair out of place.

"How long did it take you to build this?" Gaudet asked an 11- year-old girl who had made the bridge that fell after ten seconds.

"I dunno. A lot of hours," she answered.

"And it's such a pretty little bridge."

"It was," she said with a forlorn shrug.

Gaudet moved on to the second parallel-bar stand, then the third, then the fourth. At each one the casualty list was high. After a while, Gaudet even took to warning the contestants to stand back from their collapsing constructions lest somebody be injured by flying pasta shrapnel ("Sarge! The tortellini got Kramer!"). At the edge of the crowd a local consulting engineer named Henry Murphy watched the carnage and clucked sympathetically as the pasta body count climbed.

"People are putting on too much glue, thinking that it will add strength," he explained. "But only pasta adds strength. The key is to have a lot of vertical support strands and have them do most of the work. Then all of the weight is in tension."

All told, 69 contestants entered the Most Functional contest, but only 30 absorbed Murphy's lesson well enough to survive the ten minutes. Their bridges were then taken to the judges' stand and weighed. Some of the bridges were lean indeed, weighing in at 600 grams, 400 grams, 300 grams, and, in six cases, less than 150 grams. The winning model, built by Bryce Pasechnik, a 16-year-old from Vernon Senior Secondary School, tipped the scales at a nouvelle cuisine-size 100.04 grams--or one-tenth the amount of weight it had succeeded in supporting for ten minutes.

"Last year I built a bridge that was sort of the same design but heavier," Pasechnik says. "This year I just cut off some of the cables, hoping to make it lighter without making it weaker. I guess it worked."

Once the flyweights were cleared from the floor, the time came for the heavyweights, and an appreciative silence fell over the crowd. This was the Super Bowl--or at least the Super Chafing Dish--of the day. Only seven contestants dared enter this event, and only two appeared to have any real chance of grabbing the brass napkin ring. They were Lincoln Miller, a siding contractor whose championship bridge five years ago was the first ever to hold a weight in excess of 100 kilos, and Bob Williams, a local man of the cloth known on the spaghetti bridge circuit as the Pastor of Pasta, whose winning bridge last year held an astonishing 176 kilos. Williams's bridge took the classic truss-bridge form, but Miller had fashioned a more modernistic creation: cables of spaghetti radiated from the center of the roadbed and attached to a half-meter-high arch overhead.

Among the innovations in the bridges was a stroke of pasta genius first tried out by Williams in his basement lab: parboiling spaghetti strands before attaching them to the bridge. This, Williams discovered, could increase their elasticity without appreciably decreasing their strength. The trick, of course, is a) to know just how long to boil the strands, and b) to resist the impulse to add a light marinara sauce at the end and just forget the whole thing. Individual contestants had also come up with their own design ideas that had not yet made it onto the pasta bridge Internet. At least one entrant appeared to have strengthened his trusses by twisting strands of spaghetti together into a stout pasta rope and then slipping both ends into ziti cuffs to prevent them from unraveling. Another supported his roadbed from below with a meter-long arch that used upright spaghetti beams to hold the load in compression rather than tension.

When the seven competing bridges were set up on the stands, the seven contestants were each handed a bucket containing the 22 kilograms of gravel. As in the lightweight competition, the contestants were to hang their buckets from a hook on the underside of their bridges; in this case, however, the hooks were considerably bigger.

"Designers ready?" Gaudet asked again. The contestants nodded again. "Apply the load."

As commanded, each contestant placed his bucket on the hook and then stood back edgily while a judge counted off ten seconds. Precisely on the tenth, they lifted the buckets back off. No one was as amazed as the builders that all seven bridges survived the first round. Another five kilos was then added to the buckets.

"This load," Gaudet said, casting an eye toward a handful of preschoolers in the crowd, "is heavier than some of the people in our audience today."

When the contestants lifted the buckets this time, it was with an audible grunt, and when they hung them from their bridges, it was not without disaster. Sean Towers, who had finished second in the lightweight contest, should evidently stick strictly to zesty, low-calorie architecture. When he tried to hang 27 kilograms from his bridge it instantly buckled and broke. The other six, remarkably, survived.

Now the contest became downright surreal. With the load going up to 50.5 kilograms--or more than 111 pounds--the buckets were dispensed with and a hand truck with a pneumatic platform loaded with steel plates was rolled onto the floor. The platform was moved from one bridge to the next and the steel load was hung from each hook for the prescribed ten seconds while the designers stood back and hoped for the best. Two of the bridges failed immediately. In the next round, the load was increased to 63.5 kilograms, and two of the remaining four bridges fell. By the fifth round, the only two contestants left standing were Bob Williams and Lincoln Miller--the '67 Packers and '75 Steelers of spaghetti bridge competition-- and these two would now go mano a mano.

With assistants standing by to add more weight to the platform as needed, the fifth round gave way to the sixth, then the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, and the weight increased to 76 kilos, then 90, then 103, then 119, then, on the tenth round, 131.7 kilos, or 289.7 pounds. With each new load the pasta pinged threateningly but the bridges held. With the last one, however, Williams's bridge could take no more and collapsed in a hail of durum debris.

"The winner," Gaudet announced, "at 131.7 kilos, is Lincoln Miller!"

On the floor, both finalists were instantly surrounded by their supporters, but Miller savored the championship modestly. There are no end zone dances in the pasta bridge community; nobody spikes a bowl of linguine and a glass of Chianti into the Astroturf.

"I don't think I could have broken the record Bob set last year," Miller conceded. "Maybe I could have gone up to 150 kilograms, but that's it. When you get up to those weights, one strand out of place makes a difference."

Miller does not say whether he'll be back next year, strands in hand, for another run at breaking Williams's still-standing record, but the smart money is that he, along with most of the other aspirants to the pasta throne, will be. The prize for the winner--$500, a weekend at a local inn, and two round-trip tickets from Canadian Regional Airlines to anywhere it flies--is one inducement, but ego is the other. Any engineer can build a bridge out of iron, but it takes a true visionary to add niacin, thiamin, and essential vitamins.
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