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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Kernels of Truth Come Out When You Eat Corn

September 04, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think of the way you eat corn on the cob as a Rorschach test, a kind of toothy imprint of the psyche, a revealer of truth--kernel by kernel.

The consensus of several psychologists who study eating behaviors is that there are three primary eating styles: the typewriter, the rotary and the hunt-and-peck method.

Chomping styles are genetic, says John M. de Castro, a psychology professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where, he says, "there is not an ear of corn in sight."

"It has to do with DNA sequencing being right to left or left to right or rotary," says de Castro, who describes himself as "definitely a left-to-right transcripter."

Typewriter-style eaters probably live orderly, methodical lives and may be more prone to obsessive-compulsive disorders, suggests de Castro.

"I mean, what you want to find out is does the typewriter guy get crazed when he only eats three rows across instead of four? What you really need is an animal model to do the research. Perhaps rodents. They're good corn eaters." (Wouldn't the fact that rats have no opposable thumbs hamper the study?)

The typewriter psychodynamic, says Edward E. Abramson, a psychology professor at Cal State Chico, might be a "manifestation of an inner personality that is more anal retentive." Guys like Felix of "The Odd Couple" and Benito Mussolini ("The trains will run on tim e !") were probably typewriter types.

But David Schlundt, a cornfed Indiana native and psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, thinks mowing kernels from left to right may be related to how we read a page. "I eat four rows at a time and then rotate it away from me and usually end up with a few rows left," he says. (So do people who read right to left, such as Hebrew speakers, also eat corn that way? The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles guesses that about 50% of Israelis eat right to left.)

The rotary method, psychologists say, is likely favored by creative, artistic, right-brainer folks.

"This person would be good to go to Disney World with because they would make sure you saw the park, which is circular, in a nice orderly fashion," says Robert C. Klesges, professor of psychology in preventive medicine at the University of Memphis.

Abramson reveals, almost sheepishly, that he sometimes departs from the typewriter approach for the devil-may-care rotary method.

"Eating round and round you don't have to check to see how you've done . . . eating in rows presents an implicit need for orderliness," he says. "Every now and then I eat it round and round just to try something new and see what it feels like." (Wild thang!)

The hunt-and-peck method (eating's equivalent to chaos theory) is a series of random, irrational bites. Children and other impulsive folks chow corn this way. (Don't sit next to these people.)

"It's haphazard," says Abramson. "Adults doing this method, I suspect, would find it very hard to then put the corn down and not worry about the uneaten kernels. Many people probably would feel just as compelled [as typewriter and rotary eaters] to eat all the unfinished kernels." (Oh, the vagaries of corn eating, oh, angst!)

Hunt-and-peckers flummox Schlundt. "I have seen cobs that have been ravaged that way but have not been able to understand what happened."

There are deviant corn-eating behaviors, like my colleague, who runs a knife under the kernels but leaves then in place on the cob, enabling him to get that cob effect without the strain on his teeth. (Stay away from this man, Klesges advises.)

And last, what makes a grown man ding?

My father, a lifelong typewriter man, finishes each line of kernels like Woody Woodpecker, with a resounding: "DING!" My father, Klesges surmises, is either a man who needs to know when things begin and end, or else he has a terminal case of corniness.

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