Friday, January 30, 2009

Alpha males take a break

January 30

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my friend Kenyon Phillips over dinner at Dhaba. Kenyon is my only vegetarian friend with whom I will eat dinner, an indication of just what good company he is.
While munching on lasoni gobi, a stir-fried cauliflower dish that’s part of India’s distinctive Chinese cuisine (every country has its own Chinese cuisine, as immigrants from China have adapted to local tastes), as well as a variation of palak paneer, plus a lamb stew for me, we were talking about human beings’ natural desire to be liked.
“It’s a survival instinct,” he said, which of course it is.
A common theory among biologists is that young mammals are cute — with disproportionately large heads and big eyes — so that their parents will take care of them rather than eating them or selling them into slavery.
Even as cute as babies and puppies and bear cubs are, it doesn’t always work. Just imagine what would happen if we looked like caterpillars.
I think being likeable is also a tactic of non-dominant beta males. If we can’t beat people up to get our way, we can try to cajole them into it, and that works a lot better if people like you.
These days, as the economic winds blow ever-colder, I’ve found that I’m getting nicer. I’ve always been kind of a yes-man in the office, but these days, I feel like I’m being even cheerier, more accommodating, kinder to publicists, more fun at parties.
I think my colleagues are getting nicer, too.
I think we’re responding to these dark times by turning up the volume on our survival tactics.
Not too long ago I read about a troop of baboons whose alpha males, being the aggressive creatures that alpha males are, forced their way onto a garbage heap, ate tainted food and died. All of them.
With only betas left, that baboon troop behaved the way betas usually do. They worked collaboratively and helped each other out, in stark contrast to most baboon troops, which work pretty much like dictatorships.
When new would-be alphas came along and behaved like they were in charge, they were rebuffed and shunned until they learned to play nicely.
I wonder if that’s going to be going on here in the United States, where our alpha males didn’t die from food poisoning, but a lot of their companies died from toxic debt, and a lot of them lost their jobs, because firing a high-ranking alpha saves you a lot more money than letting go of a measly beta.
I wonder what kinds of effects that will have on corporate culture.

Of course, if you’re not careful when making your staff cuts, you run the risk of losing valuable corporate memory, and I was reminded of that at a book party I went to just before I met Kenyon for dinner.
The book is Dirty Dishes: A restaurateur’s story of passion, pain, and pasta by Pino Luongo and Andrew Friedman.
Florence Fabricant, who writes a column both for The New York Times and Nation’s Restaurant News, was at the party, too, and during all the speeches she pointed out Pino Luongo’s unique qualities as a cookbook writer, including the fact that he doesn’t include measurements in his recipes.
I like that, because I’ve always thought that recipes gave cooks a false sense of security. A list of ingredients and instructions on what to do with them is no substitute for knowing how to cook. It’s like any art form. Imagine getting a recipe for how to paint a picture of a tree, or how to write a song.
Don’t get me wrong, recipes are useful, but they’re not all you need, and I think encouraging people to cook creatively, and to taste the food, by not telling them exactly how much of something to use, helps them to become better cooks.
And you need someone who has been around for as long as Florence has to explain that that’s what Pino Luongo has always done.
I was also reminded of the need for a corporate memory by my cousin Leonard Kamsler, a freelance photographer specializing in instructional golf pictures who for several decades now has done work for Golf Digest. I had dinner with him, his partner Stephen Lyles and Stephen’s mother, Pete (yes, Pete, just let it go). While I ate Stephen’s delicious garlicky tilapia and Pete’s equally yummy rice dish, a sort of pilaf, but with a lot of spinach mixed in (trust me, it was a lot better than I just made it sound), Leonard reflected on John Updike, who had just died. He remembered that Golf Digest had sent Updike to the Masters tournament one year and had him write a thought piece about it. Leonard was pretty sure that no one currently on staff at Golf Digest would have any idea that Updike had ever written for them, and so they wouldn’t know to track down the article and maybe run it again in tribute to him.
He said he’d give them a call.


Anonymous said...

Bret, you so have your head screwed on right, I agree with both points (alpha/beta and corporate memory). But I'd like to add one more observation although it was implied in your baboon analogy: As long as alpha behavior is rewarded, it will continue. I never quite understood why that happened in the first place, since cooperation tends to produce better results.

Anonymous said...

Bret, I tend to agree with you on your point about recipes not being a substitute for knowing how to cook. Most of my Indian recipes are passed down from my parents, in-laws, family members etc. and they never ever include measurements. I've been trying to figure out and then relay the measurements through my blog though...but your post reminded me that I need to emphasize the need to taste the food. I almost always taste a dish before it's final and adjust the spices. Nice post. I'm curious to know how Dhaba was...I've read less than stellar reviews.

Anonymous said...

Do you actually have other Vegetarian friends, and why won't you have dinner with any of them?

Bret Thorn said...

Well, Anonymous, “friend” is about as loose a term as “vegetarian” is, and I’m sure I know more people than Kenyon who fit into both categories. And honestly I’ll break bread with just about anyone, so you have caught me at using a bit of poetic license. But I do tend to prefer eating with people who don’t have many pre-set notions of what they will or won’t eat.