Friday, January 30, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Shall we call it great entertainment? Shall we call it an eye-opening look at life among the poor in the overcrowded slums of modern Mumbai? Slumdog Millionaire is both, and it is well worth seeing on either count. Director Danny Boyle has infused the tale of a street-kid who makes his way onto a game-show with extraordinary color, life, and energy, and he has structured the plot with an ingenuity that the young Orson Welles might have admired. The film's hero, an unlikely contestant on the Indian version of “Who Want to Be a Millionaire,” but the story has very little to do with the question—Will he win it all? The question is, How does he know the answers? And this device allows us to share in the grim and gritty experiences that have shaped our young hero's life.

Some have criticized director Danny Boyle for belittling the grinding poverty of the Mumbai slums by making it look pretty. Yet others have described the film and unduly grim. Is the film brutal? Yes. But certainly less so that the recent James Bond thriller, Quantum of Solace. The first fifteen minutes are rough sledding, but once we’ve become acquainted with the protagonist, his brother, and their young female friend, the film takes wing, setting a pace and following a course with more than enough twists and turns that keeps us on the edge of our seats until the final credits. And in any case, life among the poor and homeless in modern Mumbai is brutal. What we feel as the story unfolds (perhaps without thinking about it much), is how resilient and ingenious children can be. (And we are deluding ourselves if we imagine that we have removed ourselves once and for all from the cold hard realities of life on the edge. They’re right around the corner.)

Slumdog Millionaire may be said to be an amalgam of (and a tribute to) the cultural references contained within it—not only Who Wants to be a Millionaire but The Three Musketeers and the opera Orpheus and Euridice, which is being performed in one scene as the two brothers pickpocket the wealthy members of the audience from beneath the bleachers. Adventure and romance, in other words; it is part “Band of Brothers” and part “I've got to go back and get the girl.” The hurley-burley milieu has been compared with Charles Dickens' London, but it is not as rich and socially multi-faceted as all that. The main criticms that could be leveled against the film, I think, is not that it is too gritty, but that it is too sentimental. And that is hardly a criticism at all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dining Out Winter 2009

Everyone likes to read about dining out, it seems. In fact, the words often sound better than the food tasted. It’s a form of poetry that we all understand. Yet the sad truth is that it’s difficult to think about food without also thinking about money. Expensive meals don’t necessarily taste better than cheap ones, but they’re likely to. This money dimension tends to be not very poetic, however, and it effects our reactions to food too. In fact, it seems a little gauche to make reference to it here. But the numbers you see at the end of each section represent total cost, including wine and tip. It may be that I have friends who drop $200 at a restaurant without thinking much about it. Others may consider a $100 meal a once-in-a-lifetime blow-out. I don’t know and I don’t care to. But it would be disingenuous to ignore that aspect of the dining experience altogether.

Late last summer Hilary and I ordered two or three appetizers and three glasses of wine (we split the third one) in the narrow wood-paneled bar of the Heartland Café in St. Paul. The bar menu carried the type of things that I find very appealing, many of which fall into the category of Charcuterie. I ordered a plate of various rabbit pates with tiny crusts of toast and some cranberry glazes—hardly more than daubs on the plate—but the flavors were so intense and so delicious that I went away well-satisfied.

The Heartland takes pride in using local organic sources whenever possible. I don’t know whether this is an act of virtue or good cooking technique but the results were very fine.
To give you better idea of the type and range of things they offer, I’ve copied a few items from their current bar menu:

Au Bon Canard duck breast prosciutto with white wine-poached red Anjou
pears, stone fruit catsup and sweet potato crisps $12

Duroc pork fromage de tête with bull’s blood beet sprouts, honeycrisp apple mustard and pickled golden watermelon rind $12

Money Creek ranch wild boar-free range veal terrine with baby frisée, wild boar bacon-hazelnut vinaigrette and preserved cipollini onions $12
It was quiet in the bar—just us and a mother-daughter pair in the corner. I was wondering how long the restaurant would survive (maybe they should lower their prices?) but my concern vanished when we decided to exit through the restaurant proper. The place was packed with couples and larger groups of well-heeled urbanites, and they all seemed to be having a very good time. ($88)

We met our friends Rick and Laura Sennott at a corner restaurant in SW Minneapolis called Pierre’s. It sits in the midst of antique shops and lighting stores in an urban neighborhood that lacks the big money of the suburban Edina conurbation just down the street, yet holds more than its share of sophisticated diners, perhaps. The rooms within the urban storefront are narrow, and painted a cheery golden yellow. The night was cold and it was warm inside—and the restaurant has a parking lot.

There is something I like immediately about a restaurant that carries a wine list very similar to what we often drink at home—Macon- Village Le Charmes, Vermonte Sauvignon Blanc, Verdillac white, Napa Ridge Cabernet, etc. You might remark that it would be more fun to try new things—but in my opinion the world of restaurant wines, where everything is grossly overpriced anyway, is no place to experiment.

The restaurant also smelled good. The bread was mediocre—little footballs in the shape of baguettes—but the rest of the food was very tasty and the portions were almost ridiculously large. Rick’s pork medallion turned out to be a single lump of pork tenderloin, perfectly moist and topped with a superb onion-balsamic chutney. After our waitress had described in detail what cassoulet—one of the evening specials—was, it took everything in my power to resist informing her that I had tasted the cassoulet of both Castelnaudery and Carcassonne, the cities where cassoulet was invented. Nor did I inform her that I had been responsible for preparing (and for a large group) one of the most disastrous cassoulets in modern history. Keeping both my vanity and my chagrin to myself, I simply ordered the dish.

Hilary and Laura ordered walleye and salmon respectively (the salmon was topped with an olive tapenade). We all enjoyed the meal. My dish had been lavishly endowed with chicken, sausage, duck confit, tomatoes, and white beans, and it gave me that heavy greasy feeling in the stomach that is the hallmark of a good cassoulet. It lasted through the night.

As we left the restaurant several hours later, we passed Pierre himself—a former shepherd from Haute Provence, or so I’m told—holding court with two middle-aged ladies at the bar, an ample snifter of cognac glowing in front of him. ($100)

After only a single visit, it may be unduly bold of me to suggest that the perfect lunch can be had at Prima. But we stopped in with friends after a visit to the nearby Russian museum, and I was impressed with both the flavors and the portions of the various dishes we sampled together. At $6.95 the roasted garlic appetizer looked like a meal in itself, with two heads of garlic, ample toast, tasty pear chutney and several slices of delicate cambozola cheese. The penne dish I ordered, with grilled chicken breast, wild mushrooms, roasted peppers, toasted walnuts, and gorgonzola cream sauce, was perfectly diverse in its range of flavors, as was Hilary’s pasta dish with kale, bacon, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, pepitas, and goat cheese. I must say that the penne with house-made Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, oregano, and red pepper cream that our friend Rocky ordered was no less interesting. And everyone left with a doggy-bag. ($50)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Home Economics

Amid the seeming endless string of articles bemoaning the perilous state of the economy, the housing crisis, the credit crunch, and the recession, one expression we often encounter is “consumer confidence.” And it's an important concept, no doubt, considering that 70% of the American economy is fueled by domestic spending. But it strikes me that the underlying message that often accompanies this phrase--that low consumer confidence is intrinsically dangerous to the economic recovery--is wrong-headed. It is too seldom pointed out in such articles that low consumer confidence is directly correlated to the fact that people don’t have any money.

Consider the following passage from an article in the business journal Bloomberg:

Consumer confidence sank to the lowest level in at least 41 years this month as Americans grew more concerned about keeping their jobs and paying their mortgages, raising the risk they’ll spend less next year.

I find this phraseology very interesting. It associates risk, not with losing jobs or defaulting on mortgages, but on spending less. We are being led to believe that Americans are foolish when they become concerned about keeping their jobs and making their mortgage payments. Can’t they see how risky it is (to the economy) to spend less than they spent last year?? As we read on the same fractured logic becomes more pronounced.

Economists had been counting on a plunge in gasoline prices to improve consumers’ moods. The decline in confidence signals that spending will tumble further next year and prolong the recession after a holiday shopping season that may have been the worst in at least four decades. “The deterioration going on right now in the labor market made people feel much worse,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts. “If people are worried about their jobs, they are not going to spend. That is extremely negative.”

But we have recently been shown the effect of a business climate in which people spend money they don't have, and few would dispute that the it has also been extremely negative. Can it be that the recession, the stock market crash, the escalating costs of health care, and all the rest, are simply a matter of mood. Everyone is in a bad mood, and people feel much worse. What is this, junior high?
A little further on we get some real numbers, and they tell a more accurate story.

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline dropped to $1.62 on Dec. 28, down 61 percent from July’s record... That wasn’t enough to overcome the damage from the loss of 1.9 million jobs and a slump in household wealth after the collapse of home and stock prices.

In short, it isn’t merely that a “deterioration in the labor market” that makes people feel bad. It’s the fact that they have lost their jobs, or are fearful of losing them. And the truth is that people who don’t have secure jobs (or any jobs) not only feel bad, they spend less, because they don’t have much money. That may be “very negative,” as the chief US economist suggests, but it is also very wise.
In the end “consumer confidence” is a psychological rather than an economic concept, and the world would be a better place, I think, if we added another concept alongside of it. Perhaps we could call it the “delusion index.” After all, just as market researchers can tell us how likely people are to be spending money any time soon, so genuine economists can tell us how much money people actually have to spend at any given time.
I am not an economist, but I’m sure there is some sort of debt/equity ratio that would be to the point here. The federal reserve keeps track of a DSR (debt service ratio) which is an estimate of the ratio of debt payments to disposable personal income, and an FOR (financial services ratio) which adds automobile lease payments, rental payments on tenant-occupied property, homeowners' insurance, and property tax payments into the mix. During the early 1980s the DSR roamed the 10-11 point range. In recent years it has been consistently above 14. During the same period the FOR has risen from 13 to 17 and higher.
In short, people have more debt these days, relative to their disposable income.

THE UNFOLDING STORY takes us all the way back to the early 1980s, when the household debt market was deregulated. Since that time, many Americans have consistently spent a little more than they make by drawing equity from their homes, the market value of which was also, until recently, increasing at a very healthy rate. The math was fairly sound, and the purposes to which that expanded pool of funds were put--bigger TVs, college tuition, ATVs, restaurant meals, lakeside homes--were not entirely outlandish. The rise in stock market values also fueled the conficence with which we all kept one another employed and feeling flush.

At a certain point this house of cards inevitably came tumbling down, as buyers stopped buying and even defaulted on home loans, leaving speculators, mortgage companies, and contractors in the lurch and deflating the price of homes at a rapid rate. Under the circumstances, it would be silly to say that consumers had merely lost their confidence, as if it were a psychological problem. Rather, the weight of debt and the evaporation of ever-new sources of credit have driven people to stop buying things. The delusion index—the gap between income and purchases, has reached a point where it can not be sustained by even the most “creative” leveraging of equity.

I would like to see some adventurous economist develop and sustain such a statistical tool--the delusion index. I think it would show that we are not as bad-off as the newspapers would lead us to believe. And it would also provide a useful corrective during those times when it seemed we could buy anything, pay for it later--and make some sort of profit besides.

If such an index already exists, it's a wonder no one refers to it in print. Or perhaps I'm simply reading ther wrong newspapers.