Made In The U.S.A.

Eat local. Before it’s too late.

In Adventures on June 6, 2009 at 12:12 am

Time magazine recently did a nice little story about the changing landscape of American food.

WPA files from the first half of the 20th century show that all sorts of regional food has disappeared, according to a new book by Mark Kurlansky that delves into the disappearance.

You can drive down a Virginia highway and get Philly cheese steaks, New England clam chowder, buffalo wings and St. Louis-style ribs, but it’s almost impossible to find the peanut soup the Old Dominion State was famous for.

Another book by Jane and Michael Stern, familiar to listeners of NPR’s Splendid Table, discusses an opposing view of eating before it’s too late–not because the food is disappearing, but because our time on this planet is finite.

“We’re getting more homogenized. There is a lot of crap out there, but it is not that difficult to avoid the crap,” Michael Stern says. “Jane and I could eat our way around this country for three more lifetimes and not eat all the regional dishes. And by then, there’d be 3,000 new regional dishes.”

All of which makes a great point. The same sort of thing that happened to textile manufacturing and mom-and-pop shoe shops and every other locally unique business in every odd corner of the country has the potential to go away. This is neither inherently good nor bad, since as Mr. Stern points out, the stuff goes away and is replaced by stuff that is presumably desirable as well. The problem comes when things go away because people with money push them away, because then the game is rigged. (Rigging the game is impossible if the consumers are universally vigilant, I might add. We think it’s the corporations that have the money that provides the power. But what they know and are afraid we’ll figure out is, it’s our money. We have the power.)

I would argue that this cycle of change is fine and dandy in terms of dishes and even restaurants, culturally speaking, as long as what’s going away and doing the replacing are of equal non-homogenized value. But if all the Phillipe’s and Crown Candy Kitchens of the world were replaced by Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, I’m assuming we’d all have a bit more issue with that. No matter how “sophisticated” our palates may be.

Or maybe it’s just me, because I like food.

But I don’t think it’s just me. I think we all appreciate what’s unique in our local cuisine. My uncle just advised me to make a stop at the Varsity when I’m in Atlanta later this month. I still remember my best friend in college, Ogre, describing the local delicacy of Dynamites (like Sloppy Joe sandwiches) in his home town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. When I lived in Burbank it was the Tommy Burger hamburger stand from the 50s that most made me smile. In Santa Barbara it was actually a cajun restaurant that served the best shrimp po’boy you can imagine. In Peoria, it was Agatucci’s pizza.

It is my belief that every place, no matter how remote or unassuming, has something of unique and interesting cultural value. Hopefully it’s edible.  Usually, in fact, it’s probably edible. The point is that those things only hang on as long as we don’t forget about them. So, maybe the thing to do, your patriotic duty, is to go out and eat somewhere local and great. Like Bert’s Chuckwagon. Or Mom’s Deli. Or Musso & Frank. Or Fedora’s. Or Pat’s. Or the new place the just opened up last week and may, with any luck, still be serving their classic dish 100 years from now.

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