The fat is in the fire. According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, the expression refers to when “something has been said or done that will cause a lot of trouble.” The saying goes way back: it's included in British writer John Heywood's collection of proverbs published in 1546. The adage's original, more literal meaning came from the kitchen danger resulting when globules of fat fell into the fire and accelerated the flame to a possibly out-of-control degree. Or degrees.
Those implications came to light, and heat, in October 2014, when a Virginia crematorium attempted to dispose of the mortal remains of a man who toppled the scales at some 500 pounds. A typical body can take two to three hours to cremate, according to the Web site of WTVR television in Richmond, itself quoting from the Web site of the Cremation Society of Virginia. A body of unusual size will take an unusually long time. (As the old joke goes, what's the difference between a violin and a viola? A viola burns longer. In this case, the 500-pound man is the viola.)
Fat is fuel. So the risk of an out-of-control fire over the extended course of the event is a weighty one. WTVR quoted a cremation expert thusly: “When the person is too heavy, the guy running the crematory needs to not have continuous heat coming down on the body. Otherwise it would get too hot.” With the fat quite literally in the fire, the smokestack apparently became hot enough to ignite nearby rubber roofing, which in retrospect seems like a poor choice for the top of a crematorium. Fortunately, everyone got out of the burning building alive. Except for, well, you know.
The “burning man” case is still an outlier in our growing, and I mean that, population. But perhaps no other recent news story captures the obesity issue as well as an October 30 Canadian Broadcasting Company article that begins, “Crash test dummies are getting fatter so they better represent the expanding waistlines and bigger rear ends of American drivers.”
Indeed, the entire purpose of a crash test dummy is to model the forces that a human body would experience in a vehicular accident. To perform that task correctly, you need the right dummy. (The previous sentence is basically my job description.)
The old dummies made by a leading manufacturer of dummies were the wrong dummies, according to the CBC article, because they were designed based on statistics gathered from the U.S. in the 1980s. One of those vintage dummies was a stand-in for a person weighing in at 169 pounds. The new dummies simulate a 270-pounder. Consider that in the 1980s, the average National Football League offensive lineman weighed 272 pounds. Of course, those behemoths have also gotten more gargantuan—in 2011, the last year for which I could find data, the figure had inflated to 310 pounds. To watch the NFL, you really do need a big-screen TV.
Speaking of large, ornery beasts that roam green fields: in a bipartisan resolution, the U.S. Senate established November 1 as National Bison Day to honor these lumbering bovines that stand around all day chewing their cud. Professional courtesy, I suppose.
As a resident of the Bronx, where the New York football Giants played when the linemen averaged between about 234 and 255 pounds, I always like to remind people about the pivotal role in the restoration of North America's bison population played by the Bronx Zoo, the flagship institution of the worldwide Wildlife Conservation Society.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, the plains that had once been covered by bison in the millions stood bereft of buffalo. The nation turned to the Bronx herd, which thrived in the bucolic mainland borough, for the salvation of the species. In 1907 the zoo shipped 15 bison to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. In 1913 another 14 Bronx buffalo arrived at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Today many of the 20,000 free-roaming plains bison trace their lineage to those few plucky buffalo from the Bronx. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra singing about New York City as a whole, if you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere.
One last note: a big bull bison can weigh well over a ton. Exercise great care when interacting with these animals, whether they're pawing the earth or ready to be received by it.