WSJ Contest — Friday, May 28, 2021

Grid: 15 minutes; meta: an hour or so  


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Cooking by the Numbers” — Conrad’s review

This week we’re told, The answer to this week’s contest crossword is an ingredient used by cooks. I initially identified five potential themers: the four long acrosses (RAWNERVES, etc), plus the center entry (EGGLESS). I also spotted the last horizontal grid entry (ROMAN, clued as “Like some numerals”) while solving the grid. One of Mike’s signature moves is to use that entry as an additional clue, which seemed to be the case here, tying back to the title.

There are seven ROMAN numerals: I, V, X, L, C, D and M. I scanned the grid, and noticed my potential themers each contained exactly one, and the “I” and “M” were missing. ROMAN had the “M,” and JOINS (first horizontal entry) had the “I”. That was the only “I” in the grid, which is definitely not normal (frequency analysis suggests there should be 12). Further scanning revealed that each ROMAN numeral appeared exactly once in the grid (and in numerical order), revealing the seven symmetric themers:

  • [1a: Links together]: JO(I)NS
  • [18a: Insensitive people hit them]: RAWNER(V)ES
  • [28a: Mariner’s devices]: SE(X)TANTS
  • [36a: Like vegan cakes]: EGG(L)ESS
  • [44a: Crusaders’ foes]: SARA(C)ENS
  • [54a: Departed right after dessert]: ATEA(D)RAN
  • [66a: Like some numerals]: RO(M)AN

Now what? I tried a few go-to meta moves, such as mapping 1, 5, 10, etc., back to the grid. That approach fizzled out quickly (there is no grid square 100, 500, etc). I tried to spell something with the numerals and got noise. Then I took a brief detour to Pudding Lane: 1 + 5 + 10 + 50 + 100 + 500 + 1000 = 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. And it started at Thomas Farriner’s bakery! That (kind of) matches our cooking theme. I continued my aimless mental stroll through the streets of 17th century London, fruitlessly hunting rabbits. Then I reminded myself: the meta mechanism has be be explained in a couple of  sentences in Monday’s WSJ crossword, and I was miles past that.

So I put the meta down for a while. Upon return: I tried to use the title (Cooking by the Numbers) to find step 2. My “aha” moment came when I wondered if “by the numbers” meant next to the numbers. Sure enough, the letters preceding each ROMAN numeral spell OREGANO, our contest answer.

Another impressive feat of construction by Mike. Using each Roman numeral exactly once (and in order) in symmetric entries was neat. Creating a grid with exactly one “I” cannot be easy, especially without loading the grid with crosswordese. I thought the fill was… different, but clean. I got bogged down in the southeast corner for awhile, but AGORA unlocked the rest for me. Finally: some rabbit holes are frustrating, but I enjoyed learning more about the Great Fire of London, and I will probably never forget that it started on Pudding Lane. Please let me know about any rabbit holes you found, real or imagined, in the comments. I’ll leave you with my favorite cover of the Grateful Dead‘s 10d, by Los Lobos, off the amazing cover album Deadicated.

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11 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, May 28, 2021

  1. Jack says:

    Also, each clue begins with I, V, X, L, C, D, or M. As far as I could tell that’s not related to the mechanism at all. He threw that in there just to flex.

    • sharkicicles says:

      WHAT? (Grabs iPad, opens puzzle.) Oh… fuuu…. shiiii….

    • Sheik Yerbouti says:

      On the one hand, the clues were a neat addition. On the other, those clues sent me down many long rabbit holes with no payoff. In the end, it was a bit frustrating to have such a major feature end up having nothing to do with solving the contest.

    • Craig says:

      I keep dithering between whether that was meant as a red herring or as an over-the-top clue to point to the near lack of those letters in the grid. I wasted quite a bit of time stewing over the clues, making the reveal a little less enjoyable.

  2. BrainBoggler says:

    Nice puzzle, but I didn’t find the intended answer because I spent too much time trying to use the fact that every clue started with those same Roman numerals found in the grid — the ultimate red herring.

  3. Michael in Chelsea says:

    Amazing construction, especially with the clues’ starting letters. In a bunch of the clues, EVERY word starts with a roman numeral letter—perhaps Mike’s original intention was to do this throughout.

  4. Ryan says:

    I struggled with the mechanism for a while as well. I was re-reading the clues and noticed that 4D contains “xi” – which can be interpreted as the Greek letter or a Roman numeral. “Xi preceder” made look at the letter preceding the Roman numerals in the theme answers, and there it was. Fun meta!

  5. Conrad says:

    I somehow completely missed that *every* clue (and the title) also starts with a Roman numeral. Wow! Amazing construction.

  6. Neal says:

    For some reason I found the Roman numerals starting each clue first, which led me on the path to victory. (Why reference ‘X-kid’ to get to Green Day, that’s a pretty deep cut… whataminuteRomanNUmeRaLS!) Finding that first made me look for the letters/numbers in the puzzle. One usage each, in numerical order, I mean how freaking (fiending?) clever is that. That gave me several aha moments in a row. I love that. Which is why I give this puzzle V out of V.

  7. Derek Benedict says:

    I don’t understand how 33A “Capital” means “A One”.

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