Archive for February, 2011

Sending It Back

This post comes from reading John Kessler’s commentary about sending food back to the kitchen in restaurants.  In his blog, he reports on a particularly unsavory sort of individual who makes a career out of feeding free at restaurants.  The M.O. involves most every meal not meeting his exacting specifications.  After consuming a majority of the served portion, this lout would then send it back as being unsatisfactory, expecting the restaurant to comp the meal.  There’s a special place in hell for people like that, and Kessler digs into the notion of sending food back to the kitchen for some rework or replacement.

As an aside, I use the term exacting specifications with a sense of self-amusement.  The term comes from a waiter called “Bob”, at the Ruth Chris Steakhouse in Crystal City, Virginia.  I had a business meal there many years ago, and, by luck of the draw, we got Bob, The Obsequious Waiter.  I’ve had my share of good meals, but Bob was really over the top of the ramparts.  If you asked for extra bread, his response was “I’ll dash right on it.”  And, of course, once the food had been served, he would trot over and ask “Is everything up to your exacting specifications?”  To this day, I’ve never been able to figure out if Bob was for real or not.  It still remains possible that he made us out to be a bunch of hicks from Atlanta visiting the nation’s capital and was performing for the collective amusement of the wait staff.  Regardless, Bob lives on in my memory.

Back to the matter at hand.  In my years of enthusiastically consuming wine, I’ve only run into two bottles of bad wine.  I’ve had more than a few that didn’t taste all that great, but only two bottles of truly bad wine  You know it the moment you open the bottle.  Instead of a soft wind blowing through the vineyard, you get the smell of death.  One peculiarity of Georgia law is that you cannot return beer, wine or liquor to the place that you bought it.  When you do run into a bad bottle of wine, most stores will simply replace the bad bottle with another.  In virtually all cases, this is sufficient.

Food, of course, is considerably more complicated, and Kessler addresses the issue well.  And, food is important enough that I’ve blogged about it on a few occasions, such as Mom’s Cooking and Done In By a Low-Level Minion.  Generally, I leave food criticism to the critics.  My exacting specifications aren’t all that stringent.  Yes, I will refuse to eat bad food but, no, I’m still reluctant to send it back.  Usually, I write off the experience and move on.

I do have two memories of returned food that are worthy of mention.  The first involves a fish restaurant that was located at Lenox Square; it was a very high-end place with a very good reputation.  I went there in the 1980’s with my late mother and one of her buddies, two polite women who were very independent.  Mind you, these women did not suffer fools lightly, but, in theory, I was up to the task.  As we stood outside the restaurant, waiting for the other lady’s daughter to join us, both of them sidled up to me and slipped me cash, because the man always pays.  I knew better than to argue, quietly pocketing the money.  Finally, the daughter arrived and we made our entrance into the restaurant.

We were seated promptly and the meal began.  Once seated, however, I realized that I was in the presence of three independent operators.  I had learned from my mother that in situations such as this, it was best to sit back and enjoy the show.  Unlike my mother and her friend, the daughter was still getting her footing in the style department.  She already enjoyed a reputation for being temperamental, but had no humor to leaven it.  I quietly held on.

When the food was served, my meal was as I expected it to be, a generous portion of fine food.  My mom and her buddy were happily crunching away when the daughter pushed her meal back from her seat.  She had ordered shrimp salad and the shrimp was still in its shell.  I know enough about food to know that some chefs consider this to be the highest form of cuisine, but she was not having it.  The wait staff quickly came over, whisked the offending meal away and returned with a menu so that she could order again.

Her replacement meal was delivered, Tuna Salad, New York Style.  She took one bite and pushed it away, saying “I should never have ordered anything with the name New York in it“.  The tuna salad was returned to New York; the waiter was getting nervous.  Management was also beginning to hover at the edge of the scene.  Finally the table was cleared.  Management came over and profusely apologized, and a complimentary Mississippi Mud Pie dessert was delivered to the table.  Truly a class act.

At the other end of the spectrum is another meal in the 1980’s.  The locale was a long-gone restaurant in a bohemian section of Atlanta.  My friend Bill Thomsen and I had eaten several satisfactory meals at this restaurant.   So, we returned with several associates for presumably another good lunch.  We ordered, and when the food was served, Bill took one bite of his burger, put it down and started looking around for the waiter.  “I ordered this hamburger to be rare“, which tells you how long ago this event happened.  The offending burger was swept away back to the kitchen.

The waiter returned with the burger, saying:

The cook says she’s sorry, but all the meat’s that color.

Everybody at the table froze, and meals were quietly pushed away.  We paid our bill and left, never to return.  When we got back to the office, Bill called Ron Hudspeth.   I called the local Health Department.  After a stunned silence, the Health Department person quietly observed that she was at a loss as to what to do.  If it had been an insect or a piece of glass, they could send out an inspector, but there was no clear protocol for this situation.  My reply then still holds true: “I’m just informing you of the situation.  I’m not going back there again.”  Of course, on an intellectual basis, I understand that rosy red beef is a temporary state on the way to brown, but it also illustrates one axiom of dining out.

You really don’t want to know what’s going on in the kitchen.

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Cultural Differences

This post is about the difference between us and them.  Here in the United States, we have certain values and standards that generally apply across the populace.  You know what they are because you’re part of this culture.  Of course, these days, we are undergoing a cultural deregulation, which means that a lot of things that used to be offensive are now passively accepted.  Lest they be accused of being a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, people have become accustomed to simply observing something that used to be considered offensive, quietly commenting to themselves and moving on.  That’s how civilized people do it.

Suit yourself, but the entire world does not view things in the same manner that we do.  One of the great mistakes that Americans make when they are overseas is the assumption that everybody in the world enjoys the same cultural enlightenment that we do.  And that the whole world enjoys the same court system and civil liberties that we do.  Needless to say, this is not the case.  For a harrowing example, check out the movie Midnight Express.  In this movie, our innocent American is caught at the airport with two bricks of Turkish hashish strapped to his body (which tells you how long ago this movie was made).  From there, it’s a long rumbling slide into hell.  And, this during a time when Turkey was a solid ally of the United States.  One can only imagine what it is like now.

Actually, one can imagine how things are now, what with the cultural changes taking place in the Middle East.  Surely, you can remember back to 1994 when the big uproar was devoted to Michael P. Fay, an American citizen who was convicted of theft and vandalism in a Singapore court.  He was sentenced to punishment by caning and the civilized West went berserk over the event.  It is helpful to remember that while we don’t do that sort of stuff here, that doesn’t mean that nobody does it.  My feeling then, and now, is that when you’re in a foreign country, you have to be sensitive to local mores.  It’s as much out of respect as self-preservation.  People forget about this stuff periodically, at their own risk.  And, you have to wonder what the liberal reaction will be when Sharia shows up in force in our society.  As it already has in France.

What has motivated me to write is an event that took place earlier this month in Cairo.  A female reporter for a large news gathering organization was sexually attacked by a mob of men that had gathered during the civil unrest that led to Hosni Mubarak’s departure from the presidency.  I’m not going to mention her name, but I am going to mention some of the odd circumstances of the reporting of this event.  Most notable is the fact that the reports of this event on different websites  all seem to include this statement: Comments on this item have been closed.

That font of liberal knowledge, National Public Radio, has this item: Why Have Many Comments About The Attack On ********** Been Removed? The fact that NPR has been removing some comments seems to be in keeping with their general outlook; just ask Juan Williams about that.  At least NPR is upfront about it now.

Of course, reading comments about any online article can be a depressing affair.  Simple articles about the opening of Girl Scout cookie sales often receive numerous malicious comments that make you fear for the future of Western Civilization.  So, when something as volatile as this comes up, the comments can make you suicidal.  That said, this particular incident apparently has raised the hackles of many.  In one way, NPR got it right:

  • There’s much we don’t know about what happened. Until we learn more, for example, jumping to conclusions about her attackers adds nothing to the discussion. They’re criminals. Period.

In another way, NPR showed their cultural bias:

  • Blaming the victim is an old, tired game. Please don’t.

At some point along the way, people have got to take responsibility.  I’m not going to post a photograph, much in the same way that I’m not mentioning names, but you have to ask yourself one question.

Given that events in Egypt have been extremely volatile in recent weeks, as it now has become in the region.  Given that there are significant cultural differences between the West and the Middle East.  Given that within Egyptian society itself there are significant conflicts between those who wear Western attire and those who choose the hajib.  Given that not everybody likes westerners, their appearance, their culture.  Given that a lot of people don’t like reporters, regardless of cultural differences.

Given all that, why would a reporter show up at a site of political and cultural unrest wearing a string of clearly visible pearls?

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Egyptian Women

The world is quietly holding  its breath as political & social change is happening in Egypt.  At this writing, things have been tense but there have been few casualties.  A lot of tear gas has been fired.  The Egyptian Air Force did a low fly-by, just to remind everybody.  Likewise, the Egyptian Army announced that it would not fire upon the demonstrators.  It was a polite way for them to inform the demonstrators that if there were to be a policy change, then the Egyptian Army could, indeed, fire upon those gathered.  For the moment, however, things are merely tense.

This blog is motivated by a series of photographs posted on Facebook by Leil-Zahra Mortada.  She is not in Egypt, but apparently is acting as a central clearinghouse for photographs coming out of Egypt through unofficial channels.  I’m going to snitch a few of these from her postings because they are extremely interesting:

A lot of images are coming out of the country, even with the Internet and cell phone shutdown.  Most of what we see is from the American perspective.  Which is to say, what we see is framed with our obsession with cheap petroleum and fear of anti-American hatred.  It is, of course, much more complicated than that.  It’s not always just about us.

Certainly, one clue as to the state of local affairs a few days ago can be seen in this photo.  The faces of the police officers tell you something:

Men and women tend to approach things in different ways, but when the ladies are upset, then there’s trouble on the horizon.  The officer on the right is clearly familiar with the situation, closing his eyes and hoping that things pass.  That does not appear to be likely any time soon.  The situation is tense, for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that there are citizens of the United States that are stranded in Egypt during a time of unrest.  They’re true innocents; clearly nobody was aware to any degree that the events of today would be happening during their trip to see the pyramids.  At the same time, if you’re going to travel anywhere, you have to anticipate that things like this are possibly going to happen.

There’s nothing like waking up in your hotel in a foreign country, looking out the window and seeing tanks and troops stationed outside.  With the tank turrets aimed toward the hotel.  Stepping outside is out of the question.  Likewise, social engineering the soldiers is an unwise move.  While your sparkling Cary Grant attitude might seem to be appropriate, the soldier standing there with a semi-automatic rifle may view Cary Grant as just another capitalist stooge.  Hiding under the bed might be appropriate if the tank is aiming at your room, but mostly these situations call for keeping calm, clear headed, and out of sight.

As an aside, my late cousin Chuck O’Connor was business manager for the American University in Cairo in the 1960’s.  One event during this period of time was the Six Day War.  Like many other wars, there had been a ramping up of  hostilities, but many felt that it was just the diplomatic version of sports trash talk.  Well, except for those troops massing along the Jordanian border.  Nasser was president of Egypt, and had been playing footsie with the Soviets for several years, much to the chagrin of the United States.  The American presence in Egypt was a tenuous one, and when the war broke out, there was real concern on the part of the Americans as to what was going to happen.

One event tells you something about the times.  Chuck and an associate were walking down a Cairo street.  The populace was agitated with talk of war.  As they walked by a local newsstand, the Cairo newspapers had bold headlines in Arabic, reporting of the war.  But one paper was meant exclusively for American consumption.  In screaming bold English language headlines was:

Kill every American You See on the Streets!

Of course, this headline was part of the government’s propaganda machine, directed toward the potential enemy.  Fortunately for all, nobody paid much attention to the headlines and everything worked out.

The Six Day War wound up promptly, with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world defeated for the moment.  There would be other conflicts on other days, and the matter remains unresolved to this day.  At the same time, Nasser’s leadership in the Arab world would slowly diminish after this war, but his death ended matters abruptly.  Anwar Sadat,  who was Nasser’s Vice-President, would lead Egypt from 1970 until his death by assassination in 1981.  He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, the current center of attention in Egypt.

The assassination of Sadat was the result of a fatwā issued by a Muslim cleric, Omar Abdel-Rahman.  Presumably, Sadat’s moderate stance in the Arab world was central to his assassination, but, also presumably, the cherry atop the chocolate sundae was the Egyptian–Israeli Peace Treaty, which was the result of a major diplomatic effort that resulted in the Camp David Accords.  The resulting treaty was an acknowledgment by Egypt of Israel’s right to exist, which was contrary to popular Arab opinion.  It was a bold move by Sadat, one that also strengthened Egypt’s relationship with the United States.

It would be easy to say that this is all about oil, but that Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty’s acknowledgment would prove to be crucial for relative peace in the region.  This peace has always been tenuous, but it has been the valuable foundation for subsequent developments.  When Sadat was assassinated, Mubarak took over.  And the United States carefully cultivated the relationship with Mubarak.  At the same time, the United States turned its head away from some of the excesses of the Mubarak regime.  Which brings us back to today’s events.

The United States has a spotty track record when dealing with foreign leaders.  We’ve supported our share over the years that have been good, but there have been more than a few stinkers, too.  The current Egyptian crisis has a lot of people thinking about the Shah of Iran.  In 1977, the Shah was our man in the Middle East, a bulwark against the Soviets and the forces of chaos.  By 1978, it was time for him to go.  There were demonstrations against the Shah in the streets of Atlanta and other cities.  By 1979, he had abdicated and was gone from power.  And, the United States was left holding the bag while the government of Iran was holding American citizens against their will.  Iran has been a difficult issue for the U.S. ever since.

Achieving some sort of balance between principles and practicality has always been difficult for the United States.  In very recent memory, the Central American nation of Honduras tried to enforce their national Constitution but the current administration of United States kept intervening in support of want-to-be dictator, Manuel Zelaya.  Zelaya is now a resident in the Dominican Republic and Honduras continues with its legitimate leadership.  Nor was this the first time such a thing had happened.  In 1954, the United States successfully orchestrated the eviction of a communist leader in Guatemala, smoothly removing Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.

From the Philippines, to Viet Nam, to the Middle East, to South America, the United States has tried to extend its influence.  In many cases, this has proved to be a successful formula.  You rarely hear about the successes, but the failures have often been spectacular.    We do this because we are an international power, and we do it because, in at least some instances, we believe in the values and principals of freedom.

For the average American, the real concern with events in Egypt is the price of oil.  They remember when Katrina shut down the refining industry along the Gulf Coast, and that only represented about 10% of American oil consumption.  This would be something bigger.  Traditionally, the real concern was for tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz.  A couple tankers set afire there by ship-to-ship missiles would effectively close down Arabian oil production, with the resulting chaos directly affecting the United States.  We ignored the other choke point, the Suez Canal, because Egypt was a strong and reliable ally.

That reliability came with a price, a hidden cost that has resulted in what we are now witnessing.

Modernization in the Arab world has always been a conflicted matter.  There are the conflicts between western clothing for women and the traditional hijab.  So, too, education is highly valued, but with it comes radicalism.  It is helpful to remember that most of the 9/11 terrorists were the children of Arab middle class professionals.  Likewise, education causes its own problems; consider John Carney on the Tunisian uproar, which he attributes to an over educated populace with nowhere to go.  How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree? The Tunisian uproar was largely facilitated by Twitter and such.  The Egyptian government has shut down the Internet and cell service, but revolutions were being conducted long before the Internet.  All this does is slow them down, and maybe the act of cutting off the Internet just makes people madder.

No, clearly, change is afoot, but I retain American optimism.  As of this writing, there has been no anti-American rhetoric, no flaming effigies of Uncle Sam or the American flag.  In so many ways, we hope that things will be different this time, for Egypt holds a central place not only in the Middle East but in our culture and society.  So much of what we are comes from Egypt.

The presence of women in the streets gives me hope that this will be a different revolution.

There are families at these events, showing their children history.

And, there is still humanity:


Now, 24 hours later, things have hotted up and whatever notion that I had of a peaceful revolution has evaporated.  I suppose that it was destined to be.  As one expert put it:

The Revolution is not a tea party –  Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

The pictures give some clues:

Since camels, horses and other farm livestock are not normally seen in Cairo any more, one can assume that the pro-Mubarak supporters are coming in from the suburbs and beyond.  Likewise, today’s Wall Street Journal is full of useful reporting and analysis.

One juicy tidbit was that last Friday, when the demonstrators began to gain the upper hand and both the Internet and cell phone service were discontinued, Mr. Mubarak directed the Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly to use live ammunition to put down the protests.  Mr. al-Adly passed on the order General Ahmed Ramzy, who refused to obey the order.  There was additional confusion when Mubarak directly ordered the army to deploy.  Adly, in a fit of pique, gave a sweeping order withdrawing all police from the streets.  Before the Egyptian army had deployed, there was chaos.

As an aside, the act of cutting off cell phone service was probably more of an issue than it would have been in the United States.  While the U. S. still has a substantial copper and fiber-optic telephone network, that is not the case in Cairo.  In much earlier times, Cairo’s phone service was so unreliable that most commercial businesses employed a young man to stand by their telephone, picking it up, listening and putting back on the hook.  If this minion was able to get a dial tone, he would loudly announce that fact and someone would go over to make their call.  When it was decided to modernize the Cairo telephone system, they by-passed the construction of a wired phone network, going directly to a cellphone type of system.  The typical household phone looked like a wall phone with a small antenna on the top.

So, as I write this, it is night time in Cairo, and the matter is from from over.  Obviously, there are a lot of loose ends that must be tied off before this is over.  If history is any indicator, the new President would most likely come from the Egyptian military, which was the case for Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.  We’ll see.

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