The lady had dropped her napkin

The lady had dropped her napkin.
 
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
 
Such is Per Se’s mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurant’s identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef, Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise. So I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy.
 
But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011, its most recent review in The New York Times, needs a hard look.
 

Pete Wells of the NYTimes drops Per Se from 4 stars to 2.

I have no idea if Wells is right or not, but I can't think of too many other food writers who can make a restaurant review as pleasurable to read. Writing about food is like writing about music; language can feel like an inadequate medium for describing something which we experience through our senses, bypassing the symbolic representations of words. Wells avoids those traps by, in large part, not trying to describe tastes.

Why weren't they grateful?

Robert Caro looks back on The Power Broker 40 years after it was published.

Why weren’t they grateful? As I recalled that Exedra scene in 1969, as I was trying to organize my book, I suddenly knew, all in a moment, that that question would be its last line. For the book would have to answer that very question, would have to answer the riddle posed by the Moses Men: How could there not be gratitude, immense gratitude, to the man who had dreamed a great dream — of Jones Beach and a dozen other great parks, and of parkways to reach them — and who to create them had fought, and won, an epic battle against Long Island’s seemingly invincible robber barons? How could there not be gratitude to the man who had built mighty Triborough, far-­stretching Verrazano, who had made possible Lincoln Center and the United Nations? And yet there were ample answers to that question. Did I think in that moment of Robert Moses’ racism — unashamed, unapologetic? Convinced that African-Americans were inherently “dirty,” and that they don’t like cold water (“They simply didn’t like swimming unless it was red hot,” he explained to me confidentially one day), he kept the water temperature deliberately frigid in pools, like the ones at Jones Beach and Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, that he didn’t want them to use. Did I think of the bridges he built that embodied racism in concrete? When he opened his Long Island parks during the 1930s, the only way for many poor people, particularly poor people of color, to reach them was by bus, so he built bridges over his parkways too low for buses to pass. Or of the “slum clearance” projects he built that seemingly created new slums as fast he was clearing the old, or of the public housing he placed in locations that cemented the division of New York by race and class? Did I think in that moment of the more than half a million people he dispossessed for his projects and expressways, using methods that led one observer to say that “he hounded them out like cattle”? Did I think of how he systematically starved New York’s subways and commuter lines for decades and blocked proposals to build new ones, exacerbating the region’s dependence on the automobile? I don’t remember exactly what I thought of when I remembered Robert Moses’ speech at the Exedra — only that in that moment, seeing the book’s last line, I suddenly saw the book whole, saw the shape of everything that would lead up to that line. I began organizing the book, the thoughts coming faster, I recall, than I could write. Over the next days, I outlined the book — in a quite detailed outline — from beginning to end. Some parts of what I wrote from the outline would later have to be truncated or cut out entirely so that the book could fit into one volume; aside from these deletions, “The Power Broker” as it was published follows that outline all the way through.

When your nature is not nature

Most moments—in my life, at least—do not involve terror or euphoria. Most moments do not bring extreme pain or some unforgettable lesson about this weird world where we all live. All of them pass somehow or other, though. They make up minutes, and then days, and then a life. Some are shared, some are solitary. In some you’re running late and in others you’re out of breath and in others your back hurts and you’re trying to subtly stretch it in public. In a few you’re wondering if swimming in water this cold can harden and freeze your lungs as you, for some reason, keep kicking away from the shore, your cheeks hurting from laughter or hypothermia. All of these moments, you survive.
 
And then there are more: You’re thinking of what to say as your “fun fact” in a circle of strangers or you’re wishing you could chop carrots really fast or you’re looking up at bare branches rattling in the breeze. Once in a while, maybe you notice that the mist in the air is coating your hair and clothes with diamonds: thousands of tiny beads of water stuck to the fuzzed stitches of your sweater. You smile. You close your eyes. It’s not quite crying but it’s close.
 
So: How to live? Just filling a day, I learned in my little cabin, is a tricky but essential business. I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour. Lives are fun to play with: I’ll be a writer! An astronaut! A world traveler! It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. In the cabin, there were too many options, and none of them very exciting. Read, write, walk, run, split wood, bake bread, pick berries, call my mom, hunt the mosquitos that had snuck into the cabin? Most of what I did in that cabin was mundane. There aren’t many stories worth telling. There aren’t many moments I remember.
 

In “The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau,” Diana Saverin writes with candor of what it was like to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

I was in Yosemite for a wedding this weekend, and during a hike I confessed that I had no desire whatsoever to retreat to nature and live a disconnected life. At some point in my life, perhaps it was always my “nature,” perhaps it's the result of coming of age in the information rich internet age, perhaps it's some combination of the two, I became a city cat.

Over a decade ago, during a sabbatical from work, I did a trek in Chile and didn't see another human being, or even a trace of another human (such as trash or a man-made object or structure like a road sign or a house) for three days. By early the second day I was talking to myself, just to hear the sound of a human voice, even if it was my own. I understood, for the first time, why people who live on their own in the woods for extended periods turn into babbling, primal beings.

It's not that my introverted side doesn't love time on my own, but only for short stints, and only of my own volition. One reason I loved living in NYC was the ability to be home alone yet feel like millions of people were just outside my window (or, as was literally true, just on the other side of a thin wall, floor, or ceiling). It's not just the sheer volume of people in NYC but the spatial density. Every so often it would feel claustrophobic and one would need to get away for a weekend, but most of the time it was a cozy shawl of humanity.

How NY's Chinatown has survived

Every summer, Wellington Chen, the director of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District, dispatches interns to document all the businesses that have recently opened and closed in his neighborhood. He has noticed an overwhelming number of empty storefronts being filled by independent pharmacies. At the same time, senior and adult day-care centers have been proliferating — starting with a 19,000-square-foot building the city has installed on Centre Street. Chen says it’s a subtle indication of a trend: As so many immigrants’ children have left for college and never returned, and as other families have sought real estate in the outer boroughs (particularly in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens), most of the people left in Chinatown’s historic core are the elderly dwellers of rent-regulated apartments.
 
How can this possibly be the state of one of the most desirable tracts of real estate in all of Manhattan? After all, Chinatown is hedged in by three of the borough’s priciest neighborhoods: Soho to the north, the Financial District to the south, and, to the west, Tribeca, where the monthly cost of a one-bedroom averages $5,100. Developers would eagerly replace Chinatown’s tenement buildings with market-rate housing for young professionals or gut the existing buildings, leaving only the tea parlors and dumpling shacks. A similar fate has already befallen the Chinatowns of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., which have been reduced to ethnic theme parks where longtime residents have been priced out and new immigrants no longer come. And Manhattan’s Chinatown is built on the graveyards of enclaves past: the Irish Five Points, the Jewish Lower East Side, and Little Italy.
 

An analysis of how the residents of Chinatown in NYC have managed to keep expensive high rises for young professionals from swallowing their neighborhood, relevant given the gentrification debate happening many other places, including here in San Francisco. Fascinating throughout, with deep lessons about how real estate is captured and passed on from one generation to the next here in America.

Perhaps the lessons here are not transferable, but at the least, it indicates some path dependence on whether and how gentrification occurs.

Wife bonuses

And then there were the wife bonuses.
 
I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
 
A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.
 
Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.
 

Finally got around to reading this piece in the NYTimes on Upper East Side moms. Is this real?

The author wrote the piece to promote her new memoir titled, no joke, Primates of Park Avenue.

An Upper East Side wife penned this response with about as virally-optimized a title as even the greatest minds in the Buzzfeed labs could concoct: I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU. 2015 is shaping up to be the year every one tried to break the internet.

Al came out in favor of the idea of the wife bonus almost as soon as we moved to Australia. He’s got a very politically incorrect sense of humor and joked it was to reward me for being a “good little wife,” which made me laugh out loud. Seriously, though, we settled on the exact terms: When he received his bonus every year at the end of April, we’d each take a fifth after tax and bank the rest.
 
I’m exceptionally lucky to have a husband who values how important a job it is to stay home and take care of a child, as well as understanding how difficult it is to leave friends, family and career prospects behind to further his career. He was actually pleased to have a tangible way to recognize the contribution that I also make to the success of our lives.
 
The wife bonus gives me not only financial freedom, but freedom from guilt too. We have a joint account, and before we started the system, I was reluctant to spend our money on myself, even though my husband insisted he was happy for me to. Now that I have a quantifiable amount to treat myself with, I don’t feel guilty doing so.
 
The five-figure amount has pretty much stayed the same despite the economy. Last year, I bought a Prada handbag and Burberry raincoat for about $1,500 each. I tend to wait until I’m back home in London to spend my bonus because I can leave Lala with a member of the family and go on a week-long splurge to upscale stores like Selfridges. My favorite labels include Bottega Veneta, Chanel, Prada, Smythson, Erdem and Stella McCartney.
 

I will leave aside any personal judgment here and just observe that the furor reflects the evolving conception of marriage. Whereas once they were largely seen as economic arrangements, now we expect more from marriage, from our spouses. They must fulfill us in every way. I can't tell what the model of hedonic marriage has to say about wife bonuses, perhaps an economist out there has an analysis.

If the couples observed here just had shared bank accounts and the money flowed the same way otherwise, we wouldn't have any such furor. The framing is everything here.

NY and SF: dining rivals

A reader asked San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer why celebrity NY chefs and restauranteurs didn't open outposts in San Francisco. Bauer's theory:

We’re a little provincial, a little smug about our homegrown talent, and a little less enthralled with big-name chefs who garner fame elsewhere and then bring a concept here.

As you can imagine with a topic like this, the comment thread escalated immediately into a bar fight between left and right coast foodies (if you see people and bottles and chairs flying out saloon windows, avoid the place).

If that's true, it's a loss for San Francisco, which does have a high density of hard-core foodies. Insularity is not healthy when it comes to dining, not in this day and age where chefs and diners can grow up learning and tasting so many different types of cuisine. It used to be that the sacred rule of thumb was that you didn't eat at an ethnic restaurant unless the clientele comprised a large number of people of that ethnicity. While it's still a useful diagnostic shortcut for more obscure cuisines or less diverse geographies, it has started to let me down more and more in the major US cities.

Chefs apprentice all over the world now, but even if they stay close to home, they usually have access to kitchens preparing all types of cuisine. Specialized ingredients are easier to source anywhere in the world now. Information wants to be free, and ethnic culinary secrets are no exception.

It's nonsensical that foodies who pride themselves on openness to all types of cuisine would not have that same attitude towards chefs from other cities.