The Econ of Eating

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I recently reconnected with the editor of my high school newspaper when I discovered that he has been attending FreedomFest for several years. A former bureau chief for Forbes, he is now retired in the northern California town where we attended high school and writes a weekly column as a restaurant critic. I’ve enjoyed reading his reviews. They tend to focus as much on the restaurateur as on the food, and they are always kind and encouraging to entrepreneurs. Just for fun, I decided to mimic his formula and write a restaurant review of my own. Those who frequent New York diners will feel right at home in my review, if not in my specific diner.

Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river to Ossining where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 122 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00–3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30–8:30 class. The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or the stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to the students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes.

“How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce.

Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese takeouts, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinner time, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two for my afternoon break, since those are the only places that offer seating.

At least once a week I select the Landmark Diner, so named because it has been a landmark in Ossining for over half a century. Most New York diners are owned by Greek families that immigrated to America shortly after World War II. The Landmark's story may be the same. What I know is that the owner — let’s call him Themi Papadopoulos — recognizes me and shows me to a booth in a corner where I can eat my solitary meal and grade papers until class time. The restaurant is slow between 3:30 and 5:30, so he doesn’t mind my taking up the booth. And I always purchase a full meal.

Like most New York diners, the Landmark sports a menu at least 25 pages long, including four pages of breakfast plates, eight kinds of burgers, a dozen styles of chicken breast, another dozen fish options, at least 20 pastas, plus soups, salads, and steaks. “How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce. And most of it seems to be pre-cooked. The only difference between chicken piccata and chicken marsala is the jar the sauce comes out of. Your best bet at a diner is either bacon and eggs or a hamburger and a milkshake. It’s the only food that tastes fresh. And it’s usually pretty tasty.

Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance.

This week, after showing me to my booth, Themi told me about the day’s specials — pasta primavera, braised salmon, and a half roasted chicken. Tired of my usual hamburger patty, and thinking the specials would actually be fresh, I chose the half roasted chicken. But first, wanting to make sure my selection would be half a chicken and not half-roasted, I asked him if the specials were already available, so early in the afternoon. “Of course!” he assured me.

Platters are huge at New York diners, harking back to the days in the old country when family members labored long in the vineyards or marble quarries and needed a hearty meal. The specials come with soup or salad, bread, potato, and vegetable. That day’s vegetable was red cabbage, another staple at Greek diners. Braised in vinegar, it has a sweet, tangy flavor that complements chicken or pork nicely. Of course, the flavor pairings are more successful when the vegetables are served along with the meat rather than between the salad and the main course, as mine were. Still, the delay of that course boded well for a thoroughly well roasted chicken, so I didn’t complain about my side dishes not being on the side of anything.

When my chicken arrived it was huge, almost the size of a capon, and the outer skin was brown and crisp, adding to my expectation of a succulent, moist, well-roasted meat. Alas, it was not so. The meat was hard and dry, with that unmistakable gaminess that happens after the Thanksgiving turkey has rested in the refrigerator overnight. Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance. I should have remembered that diners don’t roast anything.

I moved my chicken plate to the edge of the table and continued to nibble at my potatoes and cabbage until it was time to return to the uneven staircase at Sing Sing. As I was paying, the cashier asked how my food was.

At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries.

“Since you asked, the chicken was a little overcooked,” I acknowledged helpfully.

“Did you eat it? Would you like something else?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t eat it, but the rest of the food was fine. I don’t need anything else,” I insisted, not wanting to look like one of those people who try to get a free meal.

Themi walked over and apologized. “She’s a regular customer,” he said to the cashier. “Take 10% off the bill."

What a bargain! With tax and tip I paid $24.00 for a side salad, a scoop of potatoes and a scoop of cabbage. Yet I knew that the offer of a free meal was sincere. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries. The successful restaurateurs are those who keep their customers satisfied.

It was a bargain because I didn’t come in for a great meal. We don’t go to diners for great food. We go for the familiarity of that 25-page menu. For the familial welcome of the owners. For the quiet table where we won’t be rushed out. And because all of those desires were satisfied, there was no reason for me to ask for a refund. I received what I came for.

I’ll be at the Landmark again next week. It will always beat standing at the deli.




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The Non-Political Side of Life

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At times like this, we all need to be reminded that there is a world outside of politics — a world of wonders that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. I was recently reminded of that when I spent a few days on Isle Royale.

If you’re like all of my friends but one, you have never heard of Isle Royale. So think of Lake Superior, the way it looks on the map. It looks like a wolf’s head, pointing west. The eye of the wolf is Isle Royale. It’s 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, and as Grace Lee Nute wrote in her book about the greatest of all lakes, “It is not really an island at all, but a miniature continent, surrounded by its own islands.” Isle Royale is part of Michigan, the land of shibboleths, so its name is naturally pronounced differently from what you would expect. It isn’t “roy-ALL”; it’s “ROY-ull.” (In Michigan, Charlotte is “shar-LOT,” Lake Orion is “Lake OH-ree-on,” Mackinac is “MACK-in-aw,” and Sault Ste. Marie is “the Soo.”)

Nobody lives all year long on Isle Royale; it’s a national park with a lodge and places to camp and a lot of not-very-well-frequented trails into forest, steep, and swamp. There are moose, and I saw their tracks. There are fox, and I saw their spoors. There is a tribe of wolves, and I didn’t see any part of them. The Lake is perfectly clear, and at dawn the planet Venus shines not like a star but like a silver door left open in the sky.

Very little has ever happened on Isle Royale. Starting 5,000 years ago, Indians mined copper there, and it’s a big thrill to see the little pits where they did that. The stuff traded all over North America, and perhaps beyond. But they didn’t live there, either. In the 19th century white people tried large-scale mining, and failed; the ores weren’t good enough. Independent souls established outposts where they fished and sold their catch to ships that called at the island. The biggest excitement was the occasional ship that managed to wreck itself, running into Isle Royale. In the 1930s, do-gooders decided to protect the island from the nondevelopment that was taking place, and the national park was established.

Nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there’s no television on the island; there’s no cell phone service; and there’s only one hot spot for the internet — which I saw nobody using except me. I didn’t even know it existed until my last day on the island. And nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics, or curiosity about what was happening in the desperate electoral war being waged in The Battleground States.

This attitude continued in evidence when I took the boat back to Houghton, Michigan (80 miles away). Nobody there — even, again, the loudmouths, and they’ve got a few of them in Houghton, too — had anything to say about politics. In Houghton’s twin city, Hancock, I saw a huge Ron Paul sign hanging from someone’s porch, but that was it. This indifference to civic virtue didn’t seem to have any harmful effect on people’s moral stature. During the long boat ride, I noticed that everyone, ultimately including me, left all valuable articles — computers, purses, cameras, small but expensive gear — just lying around on the seats: no crime was anticipated. In Hancock, I attended one of the local churches, which like everything else in Upper Michigan is seriously down on its luck but in which the tiny congregation frankly and cheerfully discussed its history, prospects, and current business with the chance visitor from Southern California. After a long conversation over coffee in the basement social hall, the last person left (I had exhausted all the others) asked whether I’d had a chance to study the century-old carvings around the altar, upstairs. “No,” I said. “Do you have a couple of minutes to show me?” “Oh,” she replied, gripping her walker and swiveling herself up from the table, “my ride is here, and I have to go. Just look around, and close the door behind you when you go.” No problem; I probably wouldn’t hurt anything. So for the next two hours I had the opportunity to enjoy some of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen. No advertising words had been used. Nobody talked about “Houghton’s iconic church” or claimed that its décor was “legendary,” “famous,” or (heaven forfend) “infamous.” It was just there, if you wanted to see it. Take a look.

Wonders of the nonpolitical world.

Unfortunately, however, I need to be fair. I am not one of those libertarians who think that all would be well if the state would just wither. The world of nonpolitics has its heavens, but it also has its hells. Liberty’s observant managing editor, Drew Ferguson, located two of them the other day. They are visions from which even Dante Alighieri would turn in horror.

Of course I’m exaggerating, at least about the first one. But it does involve dying. It’s the headline that TV station WBTV (wherever that is) gave to one of its stories: “MAN KILLED TO DEATH.” It’s possible, barely possible, that whoever wrote that headline had in mind the words of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (2:23), in which Jesus says of an ideological enemy, “I will kill her children with death.” But probably not.

Drew’s other find was much worse, and much more elaborate.

Georgia Tech, I am sorry to report, has been going through a spiritual crisis. It has felt the need to “reenergize its look, while staying connected with its past.” It is, therefore, doing what other collective souls in crisis have done. It is “showcasing” new football uniforms.

To me (but what do I know?) these new football suits look exactly like all the others. But the ramblin’ wrecks from Georgia Tech know better. Among the “Jersey Highlights” are the following (and I quote):

• New custom Georgia Tech sublimation pattern on the neck front, sleeves and back insert
• New custom stretch twill numbers that reduce jersey weight and provide a leaner fit as compared to standard fabric numbers
• New custom sublimation number pattern and font featuring "GT navy" honeycomb
• New "GT gold" banded edge offsets sublimation pattern for sharper contrast at stitch borders
• Extreme Compression tight fit fabric minimizes grab capabilities by opponents
• Lower mesh insert on front and back for ultimate breathability

“I’m sold!” was Drew’s remark.

But what, you may ask, is a “sublimation pattern”?

I would remind you that every art has its lingo, and that technical words, which look like nonsense to the uninitiated, must often be used by professionals. “Sublimation pattern” is a perfect example. I haven’t the faintest idea what that could mean. If you know, please contact Liberty. I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyze[s] a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Of course, this stuff is benign, compared to political oratory.

Not quite so benign, but similar in effect to the football-uniform puffery, is the allegedly technical language of social scientists. A grad student at Princeton, who wishes to remain anonymous, obliged this column by reporting the following sample, taken from an academic disquisition of some kind. The mighty problem that engages its author is the old issue of whether people can be attracted to each other, despite their differences. He concludes that they are attracted, until they aren’t. In other words, you may think I’m fun because I’m different, but you’ll tell me to get lost if my difference gets too large. Here’s the great social scientist’s way of putting it:

Consider “Like attracts like” versus “Opposites attract each other.” . . . [I]f attractiveness is an inversely U-shaped function of novelty or similarity, each of the two opposing mechanisms might simply describe different parts of the curve. . . . [U]ltimately, some optimal level is reached, whereafter increases in the independent variable are held to give rise to reductions in liking.

 

Ya gotta love it.

I’m told that the paper from which this sample is drawn gets handed out frequently in classes at famous colleges like Princeton, and that students think it’s hilariously funny. I hope that’s why the professors hand it out. Where would we be if they actually thought it meant something?

Among the entirely nongovernmental institutions I cherish is the peculiarly American phenomenon of the fortune cookie. (No, they don’t come from China; they are as American as you and I, whoever we are.) But have you noticed that their quality has been declining? This decline is, in fact, disastrous; it represents a total misunderstanding of the genre.

A fortune cookie is supposed to give you a fortune. Picture yourself going to a fortuneteller. She (almost all of them are she’s) looks into your hand and says, “I foresee there will be problems in your life from the young ambitious one, and also from the lady with gray eyes.” She blathers on like that for a few minutes, then indicates that this is the point where you’re supposed to leave, or give her another 20 bucks and get your other palm read too. So you give her the other 20, and she starts in about how the man from southern parts will bless you with his business, but there will be much danger from accidents with cars.

No, this isn’t specific enough to ruin your day, but at least you feel that she’s given you some of your money’s worth.

Apparently, however, the fortune cookie people figure that by the time their product arrives at your table, you’ve already eaten the meal and have to pay the check, so why should they bother to come up with a fortune? So they give you something else.

This is what passed for a “fortune” on one of my recent visits to Chinese cuisine:

Your future looks bright.

What? That’s a fortune? No, it’s not.

My friend Mehmet, who was with me on that expedition and therefore had to put up with my rant, made this suggestion: “Maybe it should say, ‘Your October 12 looks bright.’” Well, yes. That would be an improvement.

On another recent occasion, Mehmet and I were both handed that most pathetic of all substitutes for a fortune — good advice.

Let’s think for a moment. Suppose there’s something wrong with you. You keep having these blinding headaches. So you go to a doctor. Or maybe you go to a “spiritual counselor” of some kind. No difference. You want to know what’s going on, and what’slikely to result. In short, you want your fortune told. And suppose the person whom you’re consulting looks you in the eye and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Huh?” you ask.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he continues. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

You would, I am sure, be tempted to commit assault and battery, not to mention stiffing the jerk when he presented the bill.

So you can imagine my feelings when, on that other recent occasion, I looked at my fortune and saw:

A good beginning is only half done.

What the . . . ? What kind of human being would write crap like that, and put it in an innocent lump of dough?

As I looked at the squirrely little slip of paper, my whole life flashed before my eyes. I vividly remembered the summer when my parents, who were very averse to travel, actually took me on a trip to New York City. In the restaurants along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were then very nice, and fascinating to little kids from Michigan, there were scales into which you could insert a quarter and receive, along with your weight, a long, narrow, tightly rolled piece of paper that contained your fortune, reckoned according to your astrological sign. The thing was vastly specific; it must have had 2000 words in it, with all sorts of numbers and figures and days of the week and months of the year and forecasts about what would happen to you on every day of the next month. It was wonderful. I cherished it, and hid it in my hands in the back seat of the car, because if my parents saw it they would not only scoff but probably take it away from me, as a warning against superstition. I have no faith in divination whatsoever, but I wish I had that fascinating object now. It was a work of art.

I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyzes a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Soon after that, The Old Farmer’s Almanac swam into my childish field of vision. In those days, it wasn’t a bland modern-liberal throwaway, as it is now. It not only presented wonderful astronomical data, full of weird symbols and funny expressions (“ecliptic,” “the moon rides low”); it had Features that were real Features, by God. My first acquaintance with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came from its reprinting in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also ran the Doré illustrations — mysterious, tantalizing, unforgettable. In those times, the OFA still asserted that it had a secret algorithm for predicting the weather, and it gave out its meteorological forecasts in rhymed poetry. Oh my! What a wonderful thing.

But here, sitting on the table, amid the ruins of the cookie I destroyed to free the verbal genie from its bottle, is a “fortune” that says:

A good beginning is only half done.

That doesn’t even make sense. What would it mean to “do” a “beginning”? And how would a beginning be “good” if there was only “half” of it?

As always, Mehmet came out with a cogent comment. “It’s like the Donner Party,” he said. “This isn’t so bad; it’s only begun.” At first, the people in the Donner Party may have thought that a couple more inches of snow wouldn’t really mean very much . . .

Come to think of it, that comment — “it’s like the Donner Party” — is a pretty good summary of political discourse. It tempts me to drift back to what might, with too much generosity, be called the rhetoric of the present campaign. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead — or, in fortune cookie language, leave while my good beginning is still half done.

rsquo;t seem to have any harmful effect on people




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