WSJ Contest – Friday, February 17, 2017

untimed (Evad) 


Matt Gaffney’s and Peter Gordon’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Wheat Thin”—Dave Sullivan’s write-up

WSJ Contest – 2/17/17 – “Wheat Thin”

Food is the order of the day, courtesy of the power duo of Gaffney and Gordon. Today, the hint to the meta solution tells us the answer is ten letters long and describes this entire puzzle grid. Interesting that the answer describes the entire grid instead of just what the theme entries have in common. Let’s see what ingredients make up this cruciverbial feast from the starred clues.

  • [17a. *A little pig?], PORK CHOP
  • [19a. *Fruit used in Thai cuisine], PAPAYA
  • [41a. *It’s sometimes called an “alligator pear”], AVOCADO – I’ve only heard it called that in crosswords, is it common elsewhere? I like how this resembles the French word for lawyer, avocat
  • [43a. Chinese cabbage], BOK CHOY – I first spelled this with an ending “i” instead of “y.” We grow this, kale and Swiss chard in our vegetable garden each year. Yum!
  • [17a. *Tempura choice], SHRIMP
  • [17a. *Bayou specialty that, like all the starred foods, fits the answer category], CRAWFISH, certainly a mouthful there!

Stars were necessary today as 6-letter theme entries would be very difficult to spot otherwise. I think the first thing I noticed about all of these foods (and indeed the entire grid) was the lack of the common letter E. I then wondered if there was some saying like I’ve heard for oysters, that we shouldn’t eat them in months that don’t end in R. (R-LESS is one of those constructor’s desperation entries you sometimes see in grids clued this way.) But I’ve never heard of E-LESS foods!

To delve further, I filled out a letter distribution chart. Here’s what I found:

  • a – 28
  • b – 6
  • c – 16
  • d – 7
  • f – 2
  • h – 11
  • i – 10
  • j – 1
  • k – 6
  • m – 7
  • o – 23
  • p – 12
  • q – 1
  • r – 15
  • s – 25
  • v – 3
  • w – 3
  • x – 1
  • y – 8
  • z – 1

Not only was there no E in the grid, the lack of a G, L, N, T and U was surprising as well. Rearrange those letters and you get the word GLUTEN, so these theme entries, as well as the grid itself, can be considered to be GLUTEN-FREE, a ten-letter phrase as indicated by the meta instructions.

I really enjoyed the wordplay involved in reinterpreting the term as well as finding foods that are indeed “gluten-free” in both a spelling and phrase sense. (I believe gluten is a protein only found in grains, which none of the theme entries are.) I wonder how hard it is to find foods without these 6 letters, but even more difficult is to find fill entries that eschew them as well. (My working theory is that’s why Matt reached out to Peter, known for his incredibly long word list (which apparently includes the obscure SCAPA, OPQR and non-possessive BARQ), for help.)

I’ll close with my favorite clue, [Low pair] for SOCKS. With the two S’s in place at first, I wondered why SIXES were considered low! :)

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19 Responses to WSJ Contest – Friday, February 17, 2017

  1. Jim Peredo says:

    Solved with 5 minutes to spare. Whew! I was mostly down the rabbit hole of world cuisine. BOK CHOY = China, SHRIMP tempura = Japan, PAPAYA = Thai, CRAWFISH = Creole, AVOCADO = Mexican?/South American?, and PORK CHOP = American. Obviously there are some holes in my theory.

    Finally I realized there were no E’s in the grid and that’s all I focussed on, the lack of E’s. (Learned a new word: lipogram!) With less than 10 minutes to go, I saw there were no U’s either, and then that blessedly led me to the answer.

    Really impressive grid and theme. Thanks, Matt, Peter, and Mike!

  2. Scott says:

    I noticed the dearth of Es and that led me to the solution rather quickly. But I went down a few rabbit holes in the process. Nice puzzle.

  3. JeffP says:

    That makes the Georges Perec appearance in the MGWCC (25D) even better!

  4. janie says:

    me, i saw the foods, reconsidered the title, reconsidered the “this entire puzzle grid” part of the instruction (hadn’t noticed the lack of Es), guessed the answer, confirmed it by scanning the grid (confirming the absence of the letters in GLUTEN — but not in FREE…).

    always enjoy the friday puzz, but it’s been a while since i’ve been able to arrive at the meta solution — so this was funner than usual. a tip o’ the hat to matt, peter and mike!


  5. da kine says:

    Oops. I submitted “without an e” as my answer (which is true), thinking that the Wheat Thin title meant the fill was weak gruel…which it was. Let’s see if he gives me credit.

  6. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Evad. You’re exactly right on how the collaboration happened. The full timeline is:

    *A couple of years ago I had an idea to do a “reverse letter bank” meta, where certain letters are excluded from the grid and spell something out.
    *Before I got around to implementing the idea, Peter beat me to it with this Fireball meta:
    (It wouldn’t surprise me if there are precursors to this one, but I’m not aware of any)
    *Crestfallen at getting beaten to it, I never wrote my reverse letter-bank.
    *A couple of years passed and I wondered if a GLUTEN-free grid was possible, with gluten- and GLUTEN-free foods as the theme entries.
    *The theme entries worked, but after about an hour I realized the grid was beyond human capacity and called in the cavalry (Peter and his database). That did the trick, and then we split the clues and haggled over a few crossings in the grid.

    • Justin says:

      Honestly, I never do these (sorry) but reading about this puzzle – that is phenomenal work Matt and Peter. Great concept, and looks like great execution.

  7. Matt Gaffney says:

    These 1-star bandits ruin it, I swear. “I didn’t get the meta” doesn’t = 1 star.

    • Tom says:

      I try to be charitable — “I didn’t get the meta” = 2 star deduction. :)

      (for the record this was a 5 star puzzle)

    • Stephen McFly says:

      For whatever it’s worth, I’m relatively new to meta crossword concept and have been logging all my results and rate them. I didn’t finish the grid, but rated this one a five. Well done.

    • Alan Matson says:

      From a discussion of statistical outliers…”they can be legitimate observations and are sometimes the most interesting ones.” I agree that “I didn’t get the meta” is not very interesting….so I would hope that the 1-star crowd would give more insight.

      • Matt says:

        Exactly my point — if you’re going to leave a 1-star, let me know why. Anonymously is 100% fine, but spend 90 seconds and give a reason. Otherwise it’s useless to me except as an irritation. If it’s something that truly annoyed you that much then I want to know what it was.

  8. Ellen G Nichols says:

    I knew the six food entries had something to do with the meta, so given the clues for many of them, I thought of ETHNIC FOOD, EXOTIC FOOD, but PORKCHOP forced me to discard those ideas. Nothing is more down home Midwestern than a porkchop.

    Then I looked at the title, Wheat Thin – thin on wheat? And except for breading on the SHRIMP tempura, and possibly the PORKCHOP, no wheat. Suddenly the shoe dropped, GLUTEN FREE. So I scanned the grid repeatedly and verified that. BTW, I bet you could make tempura with rice flour.

    I solved a WSJ Friday! It has been quite a while. Although I have submitted some wrong answers.

    Considering that the “free” letters in the final round of Wheel of Fortune are R S T L N E, a gluten free grid is quite a feat!

  9. JohnH says:

    Actually, I understand the anger at those who’d downgrade a puzzle because they didn’t get it, but bear in mind that a meta is a bit like a joke you either get or don’t, and I don’t blame myself for not laughing at the setups of my stepfather and his generation either.

    Here I was tempted to put in a lower rating myself for a different reason: even with Peter’s no doubt amazing input, the fill meant just a lousy solving experience quite before getting to the meta one way or other, at least for someone like me who doesn’t think Google is a proper crossword tool. I’d downgrade a puzzle with a ton of sitcom actors for the same reason.

    Here, though, the whole thing was just so hard to pull off that I couldn’t in good conscience downgrade it. So clever! So torn, I just sat out rating this week entirely. But my sympathy with both the admirers and detractors.

  10. Jeff G. says:

    I spent too much time staring at the starred answers instead of looking at the grid in general. So I whiffed on this one, but the tag team construction still gets 5 stars from me. Excellent puzzle and meta!

  11. LuckyGuest says:

    Wait… where/how can I rate these metas? I’ve included comments in the body of the emailed answers I send in, but if I could turn them into stars, I’ve no doubt I would be helping bring up the average.

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