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Cooking Times

An international poll of 27,000 people from 22 different countries uncovered some surprising facts about time spent in the kitchen. Here are the number of hours per week  that people spent on cooking:

        Most                                                                          Least

1.  India ( 13.2)                                                         1. South Korea  (3.7)

2. Ukraine ( 13.1)                                                      2. Turkey (4.9)

3. South Africa (9.5)                                                  3. Brazil  ( 5.2)

4. Indonesia ( 8.3)                                                     4. Germany ( 5.4)

5. Italy ( 7.1)                                                              5. France  (5.5)

6. Spain (6.8)                                                            6.China, Mexico, US(5.8)

In general, I would expect people in affluent countries to spend less time in the kitchen both because of the availability of ready-to-eat foods and because they eat out more often. On the other hand, people in the poorer countries spend more time cooking because they work with primary ingredients and do not eat out as much. It is no surprise therefore to find that Indians spend the most time cooking. Preparing Indian food is labor intensive and time-consuming; all that chopping, grinding and simmering takes time. But Ukraine being almost tied with India is a surprise.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Koreans spending the least time is only to be expected because many of their foods are either grilled and quickly prepared,  or pickled ( kimchi, anyone)  or quickly stir fried. Besides, South Korea has a robust street food scene and plenty of ready made foods. The surprise is that the French spend so little time cooking ; it is very unexpected considering the reputation that French cuisine enjoys worldwide. France’s low ranking on the list below is also a surprise.

Percentage of people who say they love food ( by country)

Most:  Italy (43)                                                        Least: Poland, Russia, Sweden, South Korea, Belgium (13)

South Africa ( 42)                                                     France ( 24)

Indonesia, Mexico( 40)

India ( 39)

Brazil  ( 38)

U.S.A ( 37)

So… what is one to take away from all these statistics? For one thing, kitchen time in all the countries is lower than I would have thought and amounts to less than two hours per day ( India) , and often less than one hour per day. This is quite different from a generation ago and is an indication of the range of labor saving devices and the semi-prepared and processed foods available today.  Secondly, I find myself questioning the validity of these numbers. There is such a wide variety of people, particularly in the larger countries, that an average is meaningless or , at least, seriously flawed.  A difference of even half an hour per week , or of 2% or even 5% of respondents, doesn’t mean a thing.

Palo Alto High School is one of the most prestigious high schools in America. It is situated in an affluent community where the median house price is over $ 3 million. Parents here are well educated and successful and expect a lot from their children. Students at Palo Alto High try hard to do well, working late nights,  and cutting out sports and other activities so that they can concentrate on academics. As a result, a student scoring 2200 on the SAT who would be in the 99th percentile of college bound seniors nationwide would be only in the 75th percentile in Palo Alto. As an article in the New York Times stated ” The bar for academic success has been set so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.” Students have panic attacks in class and some suffer nervous breakdowns. Saddest of all… This past year, three boys from Palo Alto High committed suicide because they felt they did not measure up to expectations. Since 2009, five students from Gunn High School, the other high school in Palo Alto, have also taken their lives. Parents try their best to lower pressure on their kids by telling them that their happiness is what matters more than academic success but their protestations are not always  sincere or successful.

I have seen first hand the effects of parental pressure. Since I retired I have been helping some students with their SAT prep. Some years ago I was contacted by a family was interested in my services. They came to my house with their son to interview me. The boy’s father told me that his son had achieved perfect 800 scores in the  Math and Writing sections but “only” 690 in the Reading Comprehension Section. Taking the test a second time, he had repeated his success in Math & Writing but done marginally worse in Reading, this time getting 660. Since the aggregate for all three sections was over 2250, putting him in the top 1%, I asked why it was important for him to take the test again in hopes of improving the Reading score. The father told me that Harvard U would not consider anyone for admission who did not have at least 700 in each of the three sections. This was news to me but he told me a Harvard representative had come to his place of work, a Wall Street firm, and gone over the requirements for admission to Harvard. He said he was determined that his son would get into Harvard and asked if I had any special coaching techniques that would help his son get over the hump. Of course, I had to say that I didn’t and that was the end of the interview. They thanked me for my time and left.

I didn’t have any special techniques but, from observing the family dynamics, I could tell what was holding the boy back. Throughout the session, during which the father did all the talking, the boy did not utter a word but sat sat quietly with his eyes cast down. The father was a very hard driving,  successful Wall Street executive accustomed to getting his way but the Harvard dream was his, not his son’s. The boy was obviously intelligent ( as evidenced by his scores) and had received extensive coaching both from tutors and his mother. If he did not do better, it must have been because of the burden of living up to what his father wanted. It certainly wasn’t for lack of brains or want of effort. If only his father had told him to try his best  and then left him alone…

I don’t know what happened afterwards. Did the boy get into Harvard? If he did get in, was he able to withstand the pressures of competing against the  other elite students? Your guess is as good as mine.

The pity is that parents do not realize an Ivy League education is NOT a pre-requisite for a good job. Perhaps the only exception is the finance industry where usually only graduates from these schools are invited for interviews by Wall Street firms. It is not like Japan, India or South Korea where the college you attend determines the course of your entire life. It is my understanding that, in Japan. only graduates from Waseda and other top universities are interviewed by the top tier firms; the others, no matter how well they did in lesser colleges, can only hope to get into second tier firms. The same is true in South Korea, India and other countries where the jobs are few and the labor pool immense. It is not true- not yet , at least, –  in America where jobs are more plentiful and where the pressure for academic success comes largely from parents who project their own desires and dreams onto their children while telling themselves it is for the children’s sake.

Giving Gifts

A friend of ours was at Macy’s with her husband to pick out a wedding gift and she was appalled by what she found. The ” suggestions” in the wedding registry were outrageous. As she considered and discarded them one by one, she couldn’t help articulating what she felt sotto voce to her husband.

” Are they ever going to use this? ”

” Two hundred and fifty dollars for this? ”

” We don’t have anything like this ourselves. They have another think coming if they think we’re going to get it for them.”

All these comments were made to her husband in Gujarati, her mother tongue, and she had no idea that anyone else heard or understood them. Finally, she turned to her husband in exasperation and announced,” That does it. We’re going to give them cash.”

Unbeknownst to her, the salesman who was attending to them was a laandsman who understood every word she was saying.

As she made to leave, he quietly said in Gujarati, ” I perfectly agree with you.”

My friends were mortified but the salesman went on  to say,”  Sometime ago , I too was in your position. Only, I decided to buy the gift the bride wanted even though it was far too expensive and put a dent in my budget. Two years after the wedding, I visited the couple in their new home. As they were showing me around, I saw  their wedding gifts, including mine, neatly stacked in a corner of the garage. They were still in their original wrapping and had not even been unwrapped. You have no idea how much it upset me. At least, if it’s a cash gift you know they will use it to buy something useful.”

Too often, bridal couples use the wedding registry as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get things they would never dream of buying for themselves. They ask for fine china ( $ 150 or more per setting), kitchen gadgets they will never use, satin sheets and other luxury items. And sometimes, the marriage falls apart even before the wedding gifts have been opened !

Some couples clearly state on the wedding invitation, ” No boxed gifts, please”, which is code for ” We’d prefer cash”. I see nothing wrong with that  though I think it is crass to specify” Cash only, please”. It sounds a little too mercenary.

How much to give? Well, the prevailing custom is to give at least as much as it costs to entertain  you ( and your wife) at the wedding. In other words, if the catering charges are $ 75 per person, you should fork out  $ 150; if $ 100, per person, you should shell out  $ 200.

However, my friend ( the one mentioned in the first paragraph) has a problem with this.  The ones paying for the wedding are  the parents of the bride and the groom; the ones getting the gifts are the wedding couple. There is no real connection between what was spent on the wedding and what you give as gifts. Besides, the parents too are being soaked for the most luxurious wedding they can afford ( and sometimes, even more than that).

My friend’s thinking makes sense. She goes on to add that one should give what one wants and what is appropriate for the closeness of one’s relationship  to the wedding couple. I can’t fault her reasoning but acting on it is difficult. No one wants to be thought of as cheap and thus we wind up spending more than we should even if it is against our better judgment.

I very rarely go to fast food places but, last week, we were out all morning and felt famished. Rather than drive all the way home for lunch, we stopped at a McDonald’s. I went in , placed our order and moved aside to wait for it.

As I was standing there, idly looking at the menu choices, a voice penetrated my consciousness. Another customer was placing his order and this was the conversation.

” One cheeseburger”.

” Is that all ?”  The counterman wasn’t being rude; he was just clueless.

” Uh-huh”.

I took a closer look at the customer. He was an elderly man, probably in his seventies. Lined face, wispy white hair, bespectacled, a mouth missing some teeth. Dressed in some sort of uniform, a name patch and a company logo on his grimy shirt which was hanging half out of his pants.

It was lunch time and he was probably on his lunch break. As I watched, he tendered his money … a dollar bill and seven cents. Exact change.

I thought about the order he had placed. A cheese burger : one thin meat patty, a thinner slice of cheese and a smear of ketchup in a small bun. Only 230 calories. A “meal” for a little kid, not for a workingman; but it had the advantage of being cheap. Only a dollar and, most likely, only what the man could afford.

For decades now, our feckless politicians have made the ideal of the American Dream ever more difficult to achieve. For an ever larger proportion of the population it has become an impossibility, a cruel hoax. The old gentleman was no doubt working at a minimum wage job to augment his social security check. A minimum wage of $ 8.38/ hour which translates to about $ 16,760 a year, even supposing that he was able to work full-time. More likely, it was part-time job which did not offer medical benefits. Our politicians have no idea what it is like to live on so little. At the same time that they work to get ever more tax breaks for the affluent, they try to hold the line on the minimum wage and strive to cut Medicare benefits.

Somehow, our politicians have sold the American public  the idea that low-level jobs are not worth any more. That most of them are staffed by part-timers and students who will soon go on to better paying work and that if they don’t it is their own fault because they are lazy and unmotivated. The truth is that computers and outsourcing have drastically affected the demand for workers and those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, those with a high school degree or less, have no chance of escaping their poverty. Even if they work at multiple jobs or if there is more than one wage earner in the family, they are always on the knife-edge of disaster.

My ruminations were cut short by the voice of the counterman.

” Number 52. One Big Mac. One Quarter-pounder with cheese. Large fries.”

Quietly, I picked up my order and stole away.

Upward Mobility

Most parents, especially those who have emigrated from another country, want their children to do better than themselves. To that end, they will make sacrifices to ensure that that their children get an education and are spared the difficulties that they themselves have gone through. A great example is that of the Jews who emigrated to America in large numbers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Malcolm Gladwell has written about them in one of his books; I think it was in Outliers. The first generation was desperately poor and eked out a precarious living, often as pushcart peddlers. Their children had it a little better and had their own little shops. The third generation ( the grandchildren) owned department stores and were beginning to make their mark in the white -collar professions. The fourth generation ( the great grandchildren) became doctors, lawyers, CPAs and CEOs. This upward trajectory, with each generation doing better than the last, was a result of a steely determination and a recognition of the importance of education. I thought that this was typical of the immigrant experience of all those who came to America but it wasn’t so.

Maria Laurino details how different was the Italian American experience was in her book ” The Italian Americans: A history”. The Italians who emigrated to the east coast of the U.S ( about the same time as the Jews did) were almost all from Sicily and the impoverished south of Italy. They had been  contadini,  landless agricultural laborers toiling for the  owners of the large estates or latifundia. Lured to America by the promise of a better life, they were mercilessly exploited by employers and had to  work at the hardest , most dangerous jobs for a pittance. Almost ninety percent of them were uneducated. They did not see the value of an education and resented the compulsory education laws in America. They wanted , they needed, their children to work as soon as possible because the little they themselves earned was barely enough to put food on the table. At the American Woolen Company factory in Lawrence, Mass. , workers were paid just 16 cents an hour and many families survived on bread and molasses.  As Laurino writes “… ( they) were perplexed as to why parents had to do backbreaking work while the children were being” idle” in school. They had been raised with maxims like this one from Basilicata…. ” Stupid and contemptible is he who makes his children better than himself.” Harsh words but completely understandable when one puts them in context.

As a result of such attitudes, many Italian- Americans were deprived of the opportunities linked to education and took longer to rise to prominence.

Towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, there is a famous often quoted passage which runs as follows:

” Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes  before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter __ tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our hands farther…. And one fine morning _________ “

That extra – long dash at the end of the final sentence fragment has been subjected to much scholarly analysis and interpretation. All kinds of meanings have been read into it. Some critics have even suggested that it represents the end of Gatsby’s own dock, the one where we see him at the end of Chapter 1, stretching out his arms to Daisy Buchanan’s dock across Long Island Sound. They postulate that if ” we run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, we will one day , inevitably, fall off the end of the dock and drown, just as Gatsby drowns in his pool.

When I first read about this interpretation, I thought to myself ” How can anyone read so much into a dash, no matter how long it is? ” Fitzgerald’s writing is often deliberately vague and larded with symbols and it has spawned a veritable cottage industry of analysis and comment. However, this particular suggestion, I thought, was too fanciful, the product of an over active imagination.

Then, by the merest chance, I read a review of Saul Bellow’s collected non-fiction in the New York Times Sunday Review of April 27th.  In the review, Martin Amis reproduces a passage from  Bellow’s ” Deep Readers of the World, Beware’ ( 1959). In it, Bellow imagines the following classroom conversation:

” Why , sir” the student wonders, ” does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy? … Well, you see, sir, the ‘ Iliad ‘ is full of circles – shields, chariot wheels, and other round figures. And, you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all made for geometry.”

” Bless your crew-cut, head” the professor replies, ” for such a beautiful thought. Your approach is both deep and serious.Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.”

Amis adds “ Critics should cleave to the human element and not just laminate the text with additional obscurities“.

I couldn’t agree more.

Currency as a Tool

While writing my previous post ( Cents, KidCents and Loose Change) I remembered this story that a friend told me about 1960’s Nigeria…

Nigeria then was no different from the Nigeria of today. The political situation was unsettled, corruption was rampant and money was fleeing the country in large amounts every day. To arrest the flow of capital, the Nigerian government hit upon the idea of having a single denomination for the currency and announced that, going forward, only the one pound ( Nigerian pound) notes would be considered legal tender. The idea was to make large amounts bulkier to handle and thus difficult to take out of the country. The decree had some unintended consequences.Everyday transactions took a long time to complete because the pound notes had to be counted out one by one, then checked and re-checked. My friend’s family ran a general store in Lagos in those days. Everyday , after closing time, they would lock the store doors and the entire family would sit down to count the day’s takings. It would take them an hour and a half, sometimes two hours and more to count it all. After they were done, they would wash their hands and the water would run black from all the dirt and grime on the currency notes.

It was shortly afterwards that they came to America…

P.S Coins stay in circulation much longer than paper currency and are handled by many more people. I wonder how dirty they are !

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