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Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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For many years now, I have been talking about starting a Conversation Club. Generally,  at parties, the men and women form two separate groups and converse on the same old topics. The men talk politics, sport and money; the women about families, children and fashions. It’s all very predictable and boring, particularly the political discussions which never lead to anything ; nothing is going to be solved by us armchair experts but still we plow on.

I had read about The Socrates Club,  impromptu gatherings in public places, open to anyone who wishes to attend, at which attendees explore a topic announced shortly in advance. By exchanging views and asking questions, people from different backgrounds learn more about the subject and become more tolerant of each other’s views. There are now more than 600 such clubs all over the world. Sample topics: ” What is good art?” and  ” What does love of country mean?”

My idea for the Conversation Club was slightly different because my objective was different. The topics discussed at the Socrates Cafes, interesting though they were, appeared to me to be too highbrow for my friends’ tastes. Neither did I feel qualified to lead the discussions on such subjects.  I wanted to have a small group of friends meet regularly and discuss topics from our everyday lives, the idea being to cement our friendships by knowing more about each other, our likes and dislikes, our experiences. Sample topics: ” How do you feel about New York City? Do you go there often, seldom or not at all?” and ” Is winter just another season to be enjoyed or does the cold weather depress you? What do you do to avoid the winter blues?” or ” Hamburgers or Hot Dogs? Which do you prefer and why?” Follow-up questions would enable a thorough exploration of the subject and a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

I never did start a Conversation Club but I have used the approach in putting together a column, ” Your Turn”, that is published in the monthly newsletter of our Active Adult community. Each month I ask five different members of our community a question,( like the ones above) and add my own thoughts  to theirs. I started out interviewing my friends and neighbors, then the acquaintances from the different groups I am a part of and have now progressed to buttonholing people I meet in the clubhouse or on my walks. The answers are always interesting and sometimes surprising . It has also made me some new friends.

I am now thinking of starting — I will be starting – – a Movie Viewing club. The idea came to me after the Sunday Afternoon Cinema Screening of ” Monsoon Wedding” for which I was the moderator. ( See last post). Watching the movie in a group and discussing our reactions to it was not only a highly enjoyable experience but it created bonds between those who participated in the experience. I want to do it on a smaller scale at home. My idea: Invite two couples and show a video either borrowed from the library or from Netflix streaming services and then discuss it in a relaxed home setting fueled by coffee and snacks. Of course, the movie must be a meaningful one, perhaps ” Queen Of Katwe’, a Mira Nair film about a 12 year old girl from the slums of Uganda who becomes a chess prodigy and transforms her life. There are several talking points about the movie which would make for an interesting discussion. Now, I have to find out who among my friends and acquaintances, would like such a movie and be prepared to discuss it. Since I want to keep the viewing audience small, I want to take my time and be very selective in who I invite. It should be fun.

 

 

 

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Once a month , on a Sunday afternoon,  our Active Adult community shows a movie at the clubhouse. There is no charge. Attendees bring snacks for general consumption and the club provides coffee and tea. A moderator introduces the movie and, after the screening, leads a discussion on it. Yesterday, the club screened Mira Nair’s 2001 hit ” Monsoon Wedding” and I was the moderator. Everything went well,  it was an interesting experience and I came away with some fresh ideas on how best to enjoy a movie.

My wife and I saw ” Monsoon Wedding” when it first came out 16 years ago ( It really doesn’t seem that long ago). We saw it at a theater in Westfield, N.J and  were surprised by the reaction of the audience at movie’s end. When the lights came on, there was a sustained burst of applause and they then remained seated for a full five minutes  as if stunned.

I remembered the main points of the film but had long forgotten the details. So, the week before the screening at the clubhouse, I watched a video of ” Monsoon Wedding”, not just the movie but the bonus features too. They included a commentary by the director, Mira Nair, that was as long as the movie itself. It was a good thing I did because it cleared up some questions I had besides providing some interesting insights. Watching the movie for the second time was very helpful too. Since I already knew the plotline, I was able to focus my attention on the faces of the characters and appreciate the fine nuances of their acting.  At some points, I replayed the scenes and picked up additional details that I’d not previously noticed. One other thing I did was to read as many online reviews of the movie as I could.

All this prep work came in handy  since it gave the confidence that I could handle most anything that came up at the screening. I kept the introduction short and gave just the barest description of the beginnings of the plot. I mentioned that it was an ensemble drama and that while the movie might seem chaotic in the beginning with lots of characters coming and going, they (the audience) would know every character intimately by the end. I warned them of some graphic language in the movie and re-assured them that this Indian movie at least was not over-long.

After the movie, I began by asking the audience what they thought of the movie, and we were off to the races. Their comments were very perceptive and  one comment led to another. When the conversation seemed likely to flag, I threw out a question of my own. Every now and then, I had to clarify some point about Delhi society and Indian wedding customs and was able to do so without any problems. All in all, a most enjoyable experience because of this sharing of views. I was most impressed by the depth of understanding and the broadmindedness of the views expressed by the audience members

So.. what did I learn about how to watch a movie? Well, if you like the movie and want to know more , watch the bonus features, particularly the director’s commentary. It will give you fresh ideas about the plotting and how the director translated the script into the action on the screen. If you still want to know more, read what some of the well known film critics have to say about the film. Don’t just take their opinions as gospel but examine them and see whether  or not your own views are in agreement. This may sound like a lot of work but it really isn’t because you doing something you like. It’s  fun too because, once in a while, there is an “Aha!” moment when you stumble upon some the answer for some obscure point and then discover that it was what the director intended. In time, these practices will make you a much more discerning viewer and bring you much enjoyment besides.

Next post: Starting a Movie Viewing Club

 

In my previous post, I had written about tasting menus and their shortcomings: expensive, marathons with too many dishes, too many flavors and not enough food. There is, however, a simple alternative that diners can use to taste many dishes at a lower cost.

No, it is not the buffet. Generally, buffets are available only in low- end ethnic restaurants and there is often the suspicion that the food is left-over from the previous day. It doesn’t compare with the a la carte dishes at the same restaurant. This is not a blanket statement about ALL buffets but it is true of most of them.

Instead, why not try ordering family style? At most restaurants, that’s what we do. We each select a dish and share it with the others. This way, each diner gets to try everything and no one is stuck with a bad choice. If we find that a particular dish is a winner then ,on a return trip to the same restaurant, we order a double serving of that dish along with singles of the ” new” entrees. By ordering family style, we are able to try all the dishes we want on the menu within two or three visits to the restaurant.

Two other advantages of ordering family style 1) No meal is the same because we are always trying out new dishes while sticking to old favorites. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. 2) It enables us to be adventurous when trying out new unfamiliar cuisines. I remember how, when I used to lunch in Chinatown, there would sometimes be out of town lunchers at a neighboring table. I could tell they were from out of town , because each person would order only for himself.  They would order the old familiar standbys : fried rice, egg fooyung, chow mein  etc. One would have only the chow mein. Another, only the fooyung. A third, only the chow mein. Meanwhile , my colleagues and I would be sharing dishes like Sauteed Lamb with Basil, Chengdu Chicken, Tea Leaves Smoked Duck, Pork with Special Pickled Radish, Seafood with Pan Fried Noodles and Sizzling Hong Kong Steak.

Family style… It’s the only way to go.

The Tasting Menu

The tasting menu has been all the rage at upscale restaurants for the past decade. Instead of  selecting from an a la carte menu,  diners enjoy smaller quantities of an assortment of dishes from a set prix fixe menu. It is an expensive option, often running to $250 or over, per person ( without wine). Now, even as more and more restaurants offer these tasting menus, there seems to be a backlash against them.

Not only are the meals very expensive, they are marathons lasting three or four hours, and they leave diners feeling bloated  and bored by the experience. As the succession of dishes arrives at the table, one feels like throwing in the towel and crying ” Enough!”

I haven’t much experience of such menus. I’ve only eaten from them three times at Morimoto, the last occasion  eight years ago. The dinners were hosted by my brother-in-law and namesake, and each was a memorable experience

I will never forget the first time at Morimoto. Each dish was a revelation, an explosion of flavor and what made each course special was the presentation. The dishes they were served in were beautiful and different from each other, unique, works of art. The artfully designed food was almost jewel- like in appearance, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Each dish elicited ” oohs” and “aahs’. I wish I could describe how beautiful it looked but words fail me as does memory. ( This was, after all, several years ago.) There was also a “layering” of flavor such as I had never experienced before. Just as I thought, I knew what a morsel tasted like on the tongue, the taste buds detected another underlying flavor. ( Was  that a hint of yuzu? And that hint of sweetness…where did it come from?)The wait-staff was solicitous and efficient and we diners felt pampered. The first time is always the best but the second and third time were almost as good though the sense of expectation and wonder was somewhat dulled.

There were only two shortcomings to this luxe meal. One:  So many different flavors that, by the end of the meal, I was overwhelmed. Scant hours later, I did not have a clear idea of any of the dishes. I liked all of them but I could not tell you what they were. There were many different ingredients in each dish that I couldn’t tell you what they were without referring to the menu. Second: though there were many dishes in the multicourse meal, the quantities were small and at the end of the meal, even though I do not have a big appetite, I was not quite full…. which, when I consider how much it must have cost, was troubling. (Anticipating this problem, the host also ordered two dishes from the a la carte menu so that we did not feel peckish at the end of the meal).

My last words on tasting menus: They are an experience to be savored once or twice, if cost is no object, but they are not something I would enjoy regularly.

 

 

 

Elmore Leonard offered a much quoted dictum about the use of exclamation points ( or exclamation marks) in his book  10 Rules of Writing : “ You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” For most of my life, I had no problem adhering to this rule because I rarely used a punctuation mark. It seemed artificial and I was well able to manage without it.

The purpose of an exclamation point is to ” indicate strong feelings or high volume” and it often marks the end of a sentence.  Initially used to convey joy, wonderment ( ” Eureka!”) or other positive feelings its use was later expanded to communicate  astonishment in a negative sense ( ” Alas!”). Since I never used such interjections, it was easy to avoid using the exclamation point.

All that changed with the advent of e-mails and, more particularly, text messaging. The use of exclamation points exploded and it is not unusual nowadays to see them used in bunches, three or four of them one after another. I must confess that I too am now an inveterate user of exclamation points in my text messages( though only one at a time) and, to a lesser extent, my e-mail.

Why this sudden change?

There are two reasons that are advanced to explain this phenomenon. Eliot Hannon writing in Slate calls exclamation points ” a tonic in the grayness of electronic communication.” He adds” the more insignificant the message, the more the exclamation points.”  Others have put forth the idea that exclamation points are a sign of ” the general exaggeration, aggressiveness and extremism of our culture.”

I subscribe to the first explanation. Often, after I have tapped out a text message and am reading it prior to sending it, I find it sounds abrupt and unfeeling, somehow incomplete. The solution: Add an exclamation point. A text message is not so much a written communication as a written conversation and, because it has to be brief, it is well nigh impossible to convey tone and emphasis without resorting to exclamation points. Twitter  demands even more brevity and Twitterers use exclamation points even more freely. I also suspect that many writers on social media are poor communicators and don’t have the language skills to convey what they want to say without devices such as exclamation points.

Not that Elmore Leonard followed his own rule. In his 45 novels, he used an average of 45 exclamation points per 100,000 words, about 16 times as many as he recommended.  However, he is still better than most others. Salman Rushdie used 204 ( per 100,000), Tom Wolfe  929 and James Joyce 1,105.*

Ultimately, it is up to individuals to use as few ( or as many) exclamation points as they want. Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there are no hard and fast rules for the use of exclamation points. Let it also be said, however, that an abundance of exclamation points is visually unappealing and causes the discerning reader to have a poor opinion of the writer.

P.S I didn’t use a single exclamation point in this post ( except to give an example) and it wasn’t really difficult to do so.

  • Figures are from Nabakov’s Favorite Word Was Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers and Our Own Writing  by Ben Blatt.

Money and Happiness

I am a little tired of hearing the adage” Money can’t buy happiness”. It’s true, of course, but the words are often conflated to mean many things that are not true. They do not imply, for instance, that money is bad. It’s true that having a lot of money can lead to selfishness and greed, but it is also true that having money is better than not having it. Very much so. And properly used, money can buy happiness. Consider the following findings, all the product of research studies:

  1. People who spend their money on experiences are happier than those who spend it on material things. Experiences can be re-lived over and over again ( even the bad ones if they are shared) but that new videogame, that dress or that curio soon loses its appeal.
  2. Social experiences bring more happiness than solitary ones. We enjoy an experience more when we do it in the company of others.
  3. Spending money on friends or family makes us happy because it brings us closer to them.
  4. Using money for good deeds also brings positive feelings and
  5. ( This one is my favorite insight). According to an article in Emotion magazine, the amount of cash in your checking account is a good indication of your happiness and satisfaction with life. Not your investments, income or net worth. Your Checking account. When I first read this, I was a skeptical. Isn’t the total amount of money you have the most important indicator of your well -being? A little thought soon set me straight. The cash in your checking account is what you can spend, what you will spend one day soon. Your investments and net worth, on the other hand, are good for your peace of mind, your security against a rainy day. You will probably never ” enjoy” that money.

    Simple when you think about it, isn’t it?

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