©Gary Larson
​At some point in the past I read a piece about what’s called the Marginal Utility Theory. It supposedly has to do with economics. The article explained the theory as follows: Imagine you have two farmers. Farmer A has three cows. Farmer B has 100 cows. If you give farmer A another cow, it’s a big deal. After all, you’ve just increased his herd by 33%. But if you give farmer B another cow, it doesn’t mean much because you’ve only increased his herd by a measly 1%. The bottom line is that the value of something can be relative to the recipient. At least that’s the way I interpret it.

I witnessed the theory in action during a trip to Albertsons just before Christmas. On that particular day, my daughter Maria, son Patrick, and I had gone shopping for various victuals. We had already loaded up the belt at one of the checkout lines when a kid walked up behind me. In hand he had a couple of Christmas cards and a coffee mug. I asked him if that was all he had. He answered yes and I immediately told him to get in front of us. He did, thanking me in a snucky voice.

The kid got in front of Maria and Patrick and then put the mug and cards on the belt. He was 10 or 11 years-old and definitely on the nerdy side. He also wore a bulky winter jacket, jeans, and running shoes. I noted the shoes because I looked down to discover his feet were huge—close to the same size as mine. He would easily be over six feet tall when he grew into them. Or forever be relegated to looking like a capital “L.”

When it was his turn, the kid told the woman who was our checker that he only had about $20, and that he hoped it would be enough to cover the purchase. At that point Maria turned to me and silently mouthed that he had a bad cold—and maybe not enough money. I told her we would cover the difference.

After the checker rang up the mug and cards, the kid pulled a piggy bank out of his jacket. And not just any piggy bank. It was in the shape of the BB-8 droid from the latest batch of Star Wars movies. As he went to take the rubber stopper out of the bottom, I could hear coins rattling around. Maria and I quickly exchanged one of those silent secret ninja looks that translates as “this does not look good.” Sure enough, the kid was a couple of bucks short. Maria turned to me again and said, “I got this.” She then told the kid not to worry and that she would take care of it. She quickly pulled out her ATM card and paid for the transaction. The kid was a bit taken aback but visibly grateful. He thanked her profusely. Then he leaned over, thanked me, and wished the three of us a Merry Christmas. And then he left.

As the checker rang up our goods, she thanked us for helping the kid out, saying it was generous. I said something to the effect of “it’s Christmas and it was the right thing to do.” But I was also glad Maria had helped the kid out. I’m sure the recipients, probably family members, appreciated the gifts. And he’ll probably remember it too. Three cows.

The three cows thing comes to mind every time I dine at a restaurant and am presented with a check at the end of the meal. Over the years I’ve made it a habit to tip at least 20%–more if the service is good. If anything, I do this because the person waiting on us is the essence of the three cow farmer. Schlepping food for a living is hard work, regardless of whether one works in an IHOP or a three-star Michelin restaurant. As a server, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: more specifically, the kitchen and the paying customers at the table. With the pandemic, the dynamics of both changed dramatically—and not for the better.

With so many places being shuttered during the pandemic, countless industry pros had to throw in the towel and look for work in another unrelated field, leaving a monumental dearth of experienced people working both the front and the back of the house. Gone are many of the pros in the kitchen who beforehand could crank out consistent plates of good food. They’ve been replaced in part by staff with a fraction of the experience. No surprise that in the last couple of years food sometimes takes longer to get out of the kitchen. When it does, it can be inconsistent.

As for the front of the house, inexperience has also been the name of the game. While Maria was home, the four of us had dinner at a popular local Italian joint. As we were munching on apps and yacking away, I watched surreptitiously as what looked to be a manager-type struggled to open a bottle of wine at a four-top. It was like her maiden voyage with a waiter’s friend corkscrew–and the trip was not going well. She managed to make every possible mistake opening and serving the wine, including breaking the cork and dripping wine on the table multiple times. She also repeatedly reached across the table in front of everyone.

On the other side there’s the paying public, some of whom completely lost their dining chops and manners during COVID. Rude and non-tipping customers are now more prevalent than ever. However, our server that night, named Max, was a pro. He definitely had skills. We thanked him for his good service and wished him happy holidays. I also threw in another cow by tipping him almost 30%.

In the end, I may not believe in karma but I do hold stock in the idea that what goes around comes around. So handing out an extra cow is needed now more than ever. When in doubt—and when you can—give them another cow. You’ll be glad you did. They will too. Moo.