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Compromised food critics


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Steven

You ask to see a list of what we consider good and bad critics to see if it at all relates to their journalistic integrity.  Here goes just with a few from the UK

Mascheler and Meades ( with the exception of his weak spot for MPW ) maintain objectivity and I "trust" their reviews ( an emotive term, I grant you, but in the end trust is what criticism is all about )  I would actively go there if they said it was OK-good

Nick Foulkes and AA Gill wear their subjectivity as a badge of pride and so must perish in the first burst of fire.  Foulkes, for example, shamelessly shilled Trois Garcon, quite the worst restaurant to open in London in years ( thankfully it was announced that it has closed last week ) because it was run by friends of his from The City.  I know numerous people who went there based on his review and suffered an horrendous evening.  Thereby hangs the whole problem.

No one is denying that

a) A food writer is not bound to make friendships or relationships in the industry on which they report.  That would be a nonsense to suggest.  I think a huge proportion of the people I know are in the Book trade and I am sure Steve P could say the same about the music business.

b) You get more information by knowing people and having a close relationship with them.  

What matters is how you use that information.  If you were to write ( you may have already done so ) a piece about your time with Collichio then not only would that be fine, I am sure it would be hugely entertaining.  If on the other hand you told us that Gotham ( right person?) was the most wonderful restaurant on earth and we would all be saps, suckers and ne'er do wells if we didn't go there, just because Tom was nice to you, then that would be unforgivable

No one is suggesting for a second that writers should exist in a vacuum, but they need to declare their interests so their readers can make an informed decision.

Finally, I guess it is down to the quality of the journalist.  Someone made a distinction between being a "writer" and a "journalist" The restaurant critic trade seems increasingly ( in the UK anyway ) to be taken off the dedicated food writer/critic and give to some know nothing hack who has been writing fluff pieces for the paper's colour supplement.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you India Knight.

The point about advertising revenue is well made.  See my point about the UK magazine that will never give certain acts less than 4* because their record companies spend so much advertising with them

S

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Maschler and Meades are the first names that spring to my mind when I try to think of good British restaurant writers.  The interesting thing - as I said with respect to Fay Maschler a few pages back, and it's true of Meades too - is that they are instantly recognizable.  Anonymity and Jonathan Meades strikes me as an oxymoron.  But they maintain integrity, and to a large degree objectivity.

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Simon, you have once again demonstrated your seriousness as an eater of pork products. I agree that it's a question of what you do with your information and connections, not the mere existence of relationships, that matters. And Wilfrid, while I don't follow the British food press as closely as I should, I'm not surprised to hear that the better critics over there are just as recognizable as they are here.

This whole anonymity bugaboo is perpetuated by people who know they don't really mean it. Ruth Reichl was the worst offender. She made the whole thing of wearing wigs and dark glasses a trademark, teaching the public that this was what a good critic had to do to get reasonable treatment. That kind of behavior plays off the fears of consumers that all corporations are out to get them. Yet in reality Ruth Reichl was almost always recognized, disguise or no disguise. And she rarely used disguises. Indeed, plenty of times -- and at least once per review -- she would make the reservation in her own name.

Different restaurants require different treatment. At a place like Le Cirque 2000, which is notorious for the most extreme degree of uneqal treatment of its customers, I think it might be useful for a reviewer to have an anonymous experience and -- as Ruth Reichl did or thinks she did -- contrast it with the experience of the recognized critic or friend of the owner. At the same time, I think at a place like Gramercy Tavern, where the restaurant has proven time and again that it affords excellent treatment to strangers and regulars alike, you probably lose more by anonymity than you gain.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven, my wife and I went to Gramercy Tavern three times in three days well before you had written your diary of a week spent in its kitchen. My response was that your kitchen experience exactly matched our dining experience -- they were cut from the same cloth. Therefor I would take your word very seriously on any restaurant you chose to write about.

At the same time, I don't trust your judgement on matters of global food policy, partly because your take on BSE does not match either my own on the spot experience or my grasp of the facts as gleaned from those who were most intimately involved. Furthermore, I think it is colored by your political bias as it relates to precautionary policy.

Now -- I say this, not to start a fruitless political argument, but to emphasize that I make an absolute distinction in the way I read your various writings, in the same way I might do if I thought you biased for or against a particular chef. In fact, where restaurants are concerned -- both the merit of their food and the workings of their internal structures -- I would take your word virtually as gospel. Furthermore, I don't see how anyone could read the journal of your week at Gramercy Tavern -- which I regard as a classic -- and still argue that one can write even adequately about the restaurant scene from the vantage point of anonymity. You have made the case for personal knowledge as incontravertable as the roundness of the earth or the wetness of water.

To add a P.S.: I think we have collectively demonstrated that there is no system, structure or procedure that can guarantee a reviewer's integrity. Ultimately one must rely on the discipline which they choose to exert on themselves.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Roger-All you have done is to point out that you got a bad table at Le Bernadin, and the reviewer got a good one. I fail to see how you have proven that the reason was the reviewer was recognized.

From about 1982-1992 or so, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary at the old Le Cirque on 65th Street. We were married at the end of August, and since we typically spend our weekends in the Hamptons, we would usually celebrate the week leading into Labor Day weekend. Each year the table we were given was sort of pot luck. It would range from  the next best group of tables (the best group was along the far wall,) to the worst tables near the bar. Strictly a function of whomever else was there that night. But one year we went on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend because we had a wedding to go to on Sunday night. The whole town was desserted. When we got to Le Cirque, they led us to the absolute best table in the restaurant. Against the back wall, smack in the middle. my wife and I side by side. I looked around the restaurant and forvgive me for saying this but, everyone else looked like they come from, no worse than Jersey  :smile:, Wyoming. All the hip people were out of town.

Now why couldn't that have happened to whomever was reviewing Bernadin? Why do you have to draw the conclusion it was because they were recognized?

I agree with Fat Guy. I think the entire anonymity issue is a red herring. It's used by publications to make them appear to credible, which in turn sells papers. The public believes that if a brick wall exists between the restaurant and a reviewer, it  makes for better reviews. And while it's possible that is the case, it doesn't have to be the case and you clearly haven't offered any evidence that it is absolutely the case. And like Steve says, for it to be the case, it depends on the assumption that restaurants are inherently dishonest which I happen to disagree with. I think they are basically honest.

I think that the issue of restaurants cheating is even less likely in todays chef driven environment. I mean people's egos and reputations are on the line. Bad press for any reason can kill a chef's reputation. It isn't worth taking the chance you are describing because if you are exposed just once, it's curtains.

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I'm behind, as always, and haven't posted to this thread. but i basically agree with steve. i think the whole anonymity issue is a false one. the "brick wall" between restaurant and reviewer is an artifice. that said, in response to earlier posts, the "brick wall" between the advertising and editorial sections of a newspaper are not. this is based on my experience as a restaurant critic and food editor at newspapers large and small in the United States (brit mileage may vary).

that said, i think there are a couple of very corrupting aspects of the restaurant/reviewer relationship.

The first is that these days chefs are regarded as heroes (imagine!) and there is a very real problem with people getting into the food writing business with the hopes that they will get to meet chefs and become their friends (kind of like the early days of rock 'n' roll). my first boss, way back in my sportswriting days, told me "if you want to be friends with the people  you're covering,  you're in the wrong business". i do have friends who are chefs and that is one of the main reasons i quit reviewing restaurants (that and the endless mediocre meals and straitjacketed writing form).

The other is the flip side of the same coin: the desire for revenge. Whether it's because of bad meals, personal insecurity or just plain old nastiness, there seem to be a lot of people getting into the restaurant reviewing business because of the POWER. they will make all those fancy chefs and expensive restaurants COWER! Equally bad.

To me, the ideal restaurant critic is someone who loves food, but not too much; who is deeply informed about food, but doesn't feel the need to convince me of it; who can tell me a story I want to read; and who gives me an idea of what the restaurant is all about.

As a side issue, one thing that has bothered me in reading through this thread has been several notable instances of what seemed to me to be libelous comments. Let's bear in mind that just because we're all talking like friends here, these are real people with real lives we are talking about and appropriate care should be given. Passing along unsubstantiated gossip on the Internet is not the same thing as doing it at a cocktail party, it's the same thing as doing it in a newspaper--it will be read and repeated by many more people than you know and it will live forever, even after you correct it. If you know the facts, lay them out, but "someone once told me" is not adequate.

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As a side issue, one thing that has bothered me in reading through this thread has been several notable instances of what seemed to me to be libelous comments. Let's bear in mind that just because we're all talking like friends here, these are real people with real lives we are talking about and appropriate care should be given. Passing along unsubstantiated gossip on the Internet is not the same thing as doing it at a cocktail party, it's the same thing as doing it in a newspaper--it will be read and repeated by many more people than you know and it will live forever, even after you correct it. If you know the facts, lay them out, but "someone once told me" is not adequate.

Very true. Thank you.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Finally, on another note.  has anyone noticed how awful Meades looks these days?  I wonder since he left the Times if he is not getting all those free meals at MPW places.  I saw him at Borough on saturday last and he looked positively emaciated.  Such a shame as he was the archetypical "fatty"critic

If you bothered to read "Restaurant" magazine, you would know that Meades has lost a third of his body weight on a citrus and protein diet. He's now around 12 stone rather than the 19 at the height of this reviewing career.

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Many of the responses appear to be confusing the issues of writing about food and being a restaurant critic.

I have absolutely no problem with people who are writing about food getting to know a chef and getting to understand what they are about. That is perfectly sensible. I agree that the piece Steve S wrote about his week at Gramercy was a classic piece of food writing. Similarly, Patricia Wells fulfils a valuable role in codifying the works of the current generation of French chefs. We all know more about how Rubichon cooks as a result of her work.

However, the same cannot be said for restaurant critics. I agree that a debate can be held as to whether the critical review and the star ratings are valid, however they are a fact of life and they do have a profound effect on the livelihood of restaurateurs.

If a restaurant critic in Sydney gives a mark of 11/20, most people don't even bother to read the review let alone go to the restaurant. Similarly, a four star rating by the New York Times guarantees a restaurant a certain level of trade.

One final point. If, as many have stated in this thread, it is so important for the critic to get to know the chef, how many of these critics get to know the ones who they are about to give a bad review?

Roger McShane

Foodtourist.com

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One final point. If, as many have stated in this thread, it is so important for the critic to get to know the chef, how many of these critics get to know the ones who they are about to give a bad review?

If the chef isn't very good, what would be the point?

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Russ Parsons writes:

the "brick wall" between restaurant and reviewer is an artifice. that said, in response to earlier posts, the "brick wall" between the advertising and editorial sections of a newspaper are not. this is based on my experience as a restaurant critic and food editor at newspapers large and small in the United States (brit mileage may vary).
Russ, there's a slight ambiguity here which I'm sure isn't deliberate. Are you saying that the brick wall between advertising and editorial is not only essential, but actually exists? (This isn't meant as a trap question.)

As for the power motivation -- having given up editorial control of one of the country's most influential food sections, perhaps you would be one of the few with sufficient nobility of spirit to reenter the arena of restaurant reviewing with a pure heart.  :smile:

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Russ, thanks for pointing out the revenge issue. It is certainly a danger, and speaking for myself I certainly regret some things I've written out of anger. Luckily, as a minor-league reviewer, my lapses in judgment won't put anybody out of business. That's no excuse, but it does highlight the Bauer problem (I've finally had a chance to read the whole story, to which ChocoKitty posted a link earlier): There is a degree of power that I think ethically requires recusal. The Zagats, for example, who are even more powerful than Bauer, should self-limit their relationships with restaurants. They are already the most powerful voices in the food media, if you define the food media to include books, and although they ostensibly publish survey results they are editorially responsible for the commentary and also have influence over how the questions are asked and the answers are compiled. So for Tim Zagat to sit on the commission that decides which restaurants will participate in New York Restaurant Week is just too much. Anybody with an ounce of discretion would draw the line much sooner. And assuming the coverage of Bauer was objective, I'd say he too should have stopped short of creating what seems to be a monopoly. One reason I usually feel comfortable writing just about anything is that I know I'm only one voice among many, and a small voice at that. But when you have one voice that is substantially more powerful than all others put together, you have a failure in the marketplace of ideas. At that point, I'd argue for some restrictions.

I've said elsewhere that the restaurant review -- as it is currently understood by most of us -- is the lowest form of food writing. I think it has little value, I wonder who reads anything but the stars and pull quotes, and it's no surprise that all the best food writers ditch it quickly. I'm still trying to figure out the alternative, but part of it certainly involves eliminating this contrived distinction between restaurant reviewing and food writing -- or, at least, eliminating it as an ethical distinction.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The coverage of Bauer in the San Francisco magazine article was not in any way fair or accurate. In fact, I had a quite pointed letter to the editor published in the next issue of that magazine, calling attention to some of the errors. Michael is an old friend, but if the article had been fair, the journalist in me would have said "good shot, move on," or something of the sort. But any article that predicates ethical purity on the kind of stage-dressing anonymity she seems to require is absurd on the face of it. It has been my good fortune to eat with almost every important newspaper restaurant critic of the last 20 years and not once have any of them been in disguise. That's not to say that it hasn't happened, just that it's certainly not the rule.

As far as John's praise, I appreciate it but it is misplaced. Being a section editor gives you the power to throw away press releases and go to meetings, but that's about it. Being a columnist .... now that's POWER. And, yes, I did mean that the brick wall between editorial and advertising is absolute ... at least at the half-dozen papers I've worked at. I have never once been asked to change an opinion or alter my coverage in any way out of financial concerns. Of course, one of those papers went broke, so maybe that wasn't such a good idea in that case.

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Russ, I certainly agree that the assumptions of the article vis-a-vis how other critics behave were flawed and based on ignorance. Do you also think the analysis of his power was flawed? Is there a link to your letter online? I'd like to read it.

I've never written for a serious newspaper, unless you count one small piece in the New Jersey section of the New York Times, but in a very short food writing career I've had two experiences where considerations of advertising encroached upon journalistic integrity. And how's this for journalistic integrity: I'm not going to tell you about one of them because I'm currently expecting to derive income from selling a freelance piece to the self-same piece-of-crap publication. However, I'll tell you about the other one, which occurred when I was writing weekly restaurant reviews for an online publication: There was an advertiser (for lack of a better description) and in an otherwise positive review I made a couple of critical comments about that advertiser's establishment. The review was published, but the next day I noticed it had been pulled. It turned out management had ordered that it be removed on account of the negative components. A battle ensued. Ultimately the review was re-posted, so I was saved the trouble of quitting. Still, it made me glad I mostly write on a Web site that I control (and that has no advertising). It didn't end there, either. Management was constantly trying to influence me, and while I never gave in to any specific demand or request, there was probably some sort of chilling effect on the unfettered exercise of my judgment. How many reporters have just not bothered to write something because the expenditure of political capital wasn't worth it? Lots, I imagine. I mean, when a writer sticks it to an advertiser, and the newspaper closes ranks behind the writer and says, "We have so much integrity, we're happy to lose this advertiser for the sake of our principles," that's all well and good, but it's unquestionably an expenditure of political capital by and on behalf of the writer. A writer who triggers that kind of situation day in and day out is eventually going to find his support evaporating, or at least that's how I'm pretty sure it would play out.

I'm sure that most large newspapers can tolerate the loss of a single advertiser, or even several. But of course they can't tolerate the loss of all their advertisers. There's a point at which concerns of money are always going to control over all other concerns. This has probably never been tested in the restaurant reviewing arena at a major newspaper, but eventually it will be.

The New York Times cleverly plays on both teams: In the event of a negative review, a restaurant like the Russian Tea Room can always just take out a half-page ad refuting the review. So there's money to be made either way. Clever indeed.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Before I weigh back in full Russ, I think Steve Shaw's question re: Bauer: "Do you also think the analysis of his power was flawed?" is where I'm also hung up despite your initial comments.  It doesn't appear you address this frontally--Bauer as main restaurant critic, weekly Food section editor and with supposed "control" of the weekend magazine food coverage as well.

Perhaps part of our confusion is misplaced, stemming from that article.  Is this the case and if it is, is it fair to say you don't have any ethical or professional problem with this arrangement?

When you write that "being a section editor gives you the power to throw away press releases and go to meetings, but that's about it. Being a columnist .... now that's POWER"  is it possible you are underestimating this weekly section editor role?  Does an editor typically assign, approve, reject and promote topics?  Which "columnists" at some of the food sections we might be familiar with are beyond the influence and control of the section editor in NY, SF or DC?  Is the Washington Post's Food section editor Jeanne McManus so limited in her power and decision-making that Walter Nicholls and Judith Weinraub write whatever they want? Everyone there is listed as a staff writer, so I suspect none of them are columnists and just might have to report directly to the editor, no?

Is it different in SF? To the best of your knowledge, Bauer does or does not have the authority to assign topics, deter topics from being pursued, kill references and mentions of chefs or restaurants or decline to publish a piece with which he disagrees--across all the main food-related venues of the paper--the restaurant review, the weekly food section and the Sunday magazine?

You also write that you "have never once been asked to change an opinion or alter my coverage in any way out of financial concerns" but how about non-financial internal politics or staff turf issues unrelated to advertising?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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It is a truism among political journalists that the most effective censorship is self-censorship.

As for Bauer, one of my best friends writes for him regularly. Obviously I can't ask him/her for a public opinion on this question, but I can state positively that he/she is one of my most irrepressibly outspoken friends, often critical of associates, and has never had anything but kind words to say about him.

That, of course, doesn't address the question of whether he should be allowed to be a despot, benevolent or otherwise.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I've said elsewhere that the restaurant review -- as it is currently understood by most of us -- is the lowest form of food writing. I think it has little value ...

I hope you just mean professional reviews, Fat Guy, and are not including our reviews we put up on eGullet  :sad:  

If indeed our 'family' reviews are of value to one another, what makes them so, and in what way do they differ from the "useless" professional ones ? Is it just mutual trust ?

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Macrosan, it's a question of the form: A good food writer is unnecessarily limited by a newspaper's requirements for a review. That doesn't mean no review is ever good, but simply that it's better to let good writers write what they want to write and that the review form is a guarantee that you won't get a lot of great product from an otherwise talented writer. The folks on this site write review-type messages only when they feel personally inspired to do so. That's when it's appropriate, and interesting to read. But as a weekly repetitive grind in a restrictive format, it's just boring. A message board site like this one is the ideal place to read about people's restaurant experiences because you have the benefit of a self-selecting sophisticated membership plus diversity of opinion. So you don't have the morass of undifferentiated opinion in Zagat or the monotony of newspaper-type reviews.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A review should be free to start from a vantage point, perhaps distant, and gradually zoom in on the particular restaurant or book or painting or concert that has prompted the discussion -- like a long tracking shot at the beginning of a carefully crafted film. Otherwise the reviewer is in danger of simply placing the subject matter under a microscope and diving straight into the detail. Unless you are an expert or obsessed with minutiae, close up all restaurants are boringly similar -- food arrives on plates, wine in glasses, and you either like it or you don't. Those who prefer a less devious approach should obviously be reading some other reviewer. :smile:

Most periodicals are not prepared to give reviewers such breathing space, unless they are celebrities in their own right, in which case they need never get around to even mentioning the subject at hand. Space is money, and editors are parsimonious in dealing it out. A forum like eGullet allows correspondents to rise or sink by their own adopted standards.  

[i hate using plural constructions when the singular is more appropriate, but I hate "he/she" even more. It's a constant reminder that we Anglo-Saxons don't properly understand the structure of our own language. "Man" used to be gender-neuter like "Mann" in German -- otherwise a word like "husbandman" and "wifman" would have been redundant or self-contradictory.]

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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[i hate using plural constructions when the singular is more appropriate, but I hate "he/she" even more. It's a constant reminder that we Anglo-Saxons don't properly understand the structure of our own language. "Man" used to be gender-neuter like "Mann" in German -- otherwise a word like "husbandman" and "wifman" would have been redundant or self-contradictory.]

I hear ya on that one. I especially despise s/he. How would someone pronounce that?

While they're at it, they might as well write s/he/it.  :wink:

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[i hate using plural constructions when the singular is more appropriate, but I hate "he/she" even more. It's a constant reminder that we Anglo-Saxons don't properly understand the structure of our own language. "Man" used to be gender-neuter like "Mann" in German -- otherwise a word like "husbandman" and "wifman" would have been redundant or self-contradictory.]

Sorry John Whiting, but the " gender-neuter like "Mann" in German" is always spelled "man" (small m and one n).

(Re. Cassell's German/English - Deutsch/Englisch Dictionary)

Peter
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Sorry John Whiting, but the " gender-neuter like "Mann" in German" is always spelled "man" (small m and one n).

(Re. Cassell's German/English - Deutsch/Englisch Dictionary)

Which I did. I capitalized it because it began a sentence. I don't understand what you're saying. (You don't mean re, you mean vid.)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John, you are right I should have used "vid." vs "re".

      You started your sentence with:"Man" used to be gender-neuter like "Mann" in German -- "

Do you mean the 'first' "Man" as being the English word, and in that case you are right about Capital "M" (sentence start), but as you referred to:

' gender-neuter like "Mann" in German '

This 'Mann' is spelled 'man'

Peter
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