The Homogenization of American Food


Well, friends, my parents came to visit us at The New House this weekend.  We had a lovely visit, but a comment that my dad made made me sit up and Take Notice and scribble a note to myself to Write About It.  At breakfast Saturday morning, he mentioned that he had heard an interesting piece on NPR about national food chains.  They spoke with some CEOs of large (soulless) chains, and they were bragging (my word) about how, if you order a Domino’s Pepperoni Pizza, it would taste the same whether you called them up in Carmel or Connecticut or Columbia.  My dad was impressed.  I was Dismayed.

I think I must blame the folks over at McDonald’s.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure they pioneered the idea of Manifest Destiny Taste Branding.  I just made up that term, but that’s what they do:  you can tell a McDonald’s burger blindfolded, from sea to shining sea, because they all taste the same.  Once the interstate highway system had folks zooming from coast to coast in hours rather than days or weeks, large chains swooped in and capitalized on Americans’ need to have things Stay the Same, even when their view out the window was radically different.  How sad–we could take to the road in our cars that had beds built in and go See the Country, but somehow, we wanted some aspects of our lives to stay the same, even on the road.  And it wasn’t enough to just bring some pictures of the old homestead with us on the road.  Oh, no, we couldn’t just Dream of Home while munching away on a Local Specialty.  We wanted our food to Stay the Same.  No matter Where. We. Went.

I’m a little hazy on the history, so I’m not sure if Americans demanded it and The Food Machine gave us what we wanted, or if The Food Machine made us believe that that’s what we wanted and shoved it down our throats.  Regardless, lots of Mom & Pop type restaurants were shuttered for good as the Interstates diverted traffic from erstwhile roadside burgs that made their livlihoods on the stomachs of hungry travellers.  I know.  I’ve seen Cars.

That’s why The Beloved and I make it a point to Seek Out local eateries wherever we live or visit or just pass by.  We can no longer bring ourselves to eat at The Usual Suspects along the highway; it is worth it to us to drive a few miles “our of our way” to sample food that tastes good and is place-specific.  Aside from the thought of the enormous carbon footprint of fast food restaurants, and despite the convenience and the advertising and the Catchy Jingles, we just can no longer justify spending our pennies to perpetuate the Death of Local Food.  When Money is the driving factor, food ceases to be something that sustains us.  It just becomes another Product to be manufactured and marketed.  There is no love at a fast food restaurant, and we all know that food made with love from real ingredients by real cooks is the only real food there is–the only kind that can sustain us.  The rest is just empty calories.

We’re shopping at our local farmer’s market as much as we can.  We’re frequenting local restaurants, spending a bit more to keep the money in our local economy and to know that the folks who’re making our food really care, and we sleep better at night.

Granted, The Beloved and I are just two people–no kids to feed–so it’s a bit easier for us to spend a couple of extra dollars a week.  After all, we have no daughter who needs a prom dress; no son who needs new cleats.  We do cut corners elsewhere, though.  I rarely buy new clothes, and my shoe collection would make most woman rush to get our their magnifying glass.  This is partly because I pretty much hate to shop, but it’s mostly because I think it’s more important to support local business and local food than it is to have this year’s gladiator sandal in teal ostrich skin.

When it comes to baking, it’s a little more difficult to buy locally-sourced ingredients.  Sugar?  Not so much a North Carolina specialty.  Eggs–I can get them at the farmer’s market.  Ditto milk.  But I will tell you, I have to make a Huge Wedding Cake for this coming weekend, and I shan’t be purchasing Organic Anything to make it.  A girl’s got to make a profit.  (I know that’s a wimpy double standard, but I’d rather tell you the Ugly Truth than make you believe I am St. Jenni of Organica).  Flour?  Honestly, I’ll have to do some research.  I think in this part of the country that it’ll be much easier to find local corn flour, but I’ll see what I can dig up and let you know.

So, that’s it for now.  Just had to get that off my chest.  So, what are your thoughts on buying and/or eating local?

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve always found Bobby Flay’s Throwdown show pretty interesting. He goes in and challenges a local expert to see who can make the best whatever dish. Bobby Flay almost always loses.

    It’s interesting to listen to the judges. With Bobby Flay they’ll say something along the lines of, “This is really tasty, interesting, exciting, but it’s not traditional”. Then they’ll say about the challengee “This is the way my grandma made it, it’s quite good.” And Bobby Flay loses. Most folks aren’t interested so much in tasting something *good* as they are tasting something *familiar*. In my opinion, McDonald’s didn’t cause this problem. They merely made a zillion dollars by figuring it out first.

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      I hear what you’re saying about Bobby Flay’s Throwdown (a show I abhor, but that’s for another post and another time), but my point is that “familiar” in Hawaii is different from “familiar” in NC is different from “familiar” in Guam. McDonald’s made everyone think that familiar should be a global concept, when in reality, it’s a local one. When a judge says “This is the way my grandma made it; it’s quite good,” they could go on to say something along the lines of “It’s familiar and reminds me of a certain place.” They could also finish their “it’s not traditional…” with “…for this region of the country.” Local judges judging local cooks are frequently going to come down on the side of the local cook who’s making a local specialty, because sometimes *familiar* and *good* are synonymous.

  2. says

    I’m not too particular about buying everything local, but I try to hit up farmer’s markets and I like picking my own apples or berries. My gardening parents are very generous with their harvests, too, so soon I’ll be awash in local organic produce. I have a nasty tropical fruit addiction, however…

  3. says

    There’s this weird transition point in starting to seek local food. (More specifically, *writing about* seeking local food.) When you don’t talk about the source of your ingredients at all, you’re pretty much below the radar of the local-food zealots … excuse me, *supporters*.

    But once you start talking about it, you start getting feedback that you aren’t being insistent enough, that your statements aren’t categorical enough, that you might just as well advocate drinking poison as accept any compromise.

    Maybe it’s because I don’t seek out confrontation. Maybe it’s because I believe that browbeating people only works until they’re out of your earshot. But I prefer the idea of *supporting* someone’s decision to seek local foods.

    For instance, instead of, “You say you want to use local food, then you buy factory farmed eggs for work. I suppose it’s okay to poison strangers, but not your own family?” How about this, “That’s great that you’re trying to use local foods. Aren’t you in [city]? Did you know there is a local farm co-op in [neighboring city] that has a CSA?”

    If someone wants to go over-the-top, full-tilt rant mode on the companies that are funding bogus science in the name of increased profit, have at it. I’m behind that 100%. But when someone says they’re *trying* to do better, I think slamming them for not matching some arbitrary level of ideological purity is counter-productive.

    • says

      Yeah, I hear you, Drew. It’s definitely a hot button issue. I guess my main point here is just to support local restaurants over massive chain restaurants and to think about where my money goes once it leaves my hot little hand.

      I’m with you–I’d much rather be supportive than pedantic. We’ll see what sort of comments come along…

  4. says

    Funny you should mention Dominos. When I was out of town on business several years back (in Raleigh, in fact), I tried a few pizza joints and they were horrid. I finally relented and D’s delivered right to my hotel. It was indeed, as expected. Not too bad.

    When traveling through PA for biz, I went into one local joint, a diner type of place, and something scurried under my feet. I hightailed out of there and headed right for the first Mickey D’s I could find!

    I’m all for local. On my Buffalo NY food blog, I go to only local places, and they’re usually those little hole in the wall places no one ever writes about. But on the road, except for NYC which I know well, I seem to have extremely bad luck with food. So as a last resort I will go to the chain establishment.

    Buying local – many people have yet to realize that some of the best deals can be found at the farmers market.

    • says

      Fortunately, we’ve found a good local pizza place:) Oh, and you’d asked earlier where we are exactly: we’re south of Raleigh in Garner. Still in Wake County, but only a couple of miles from the Johns(t?)on County line. Lovin’ it, so far.

  5. chefkeem says

    When I grew up in 1950-60′s Germany, a lot of folks took their vacation in Italy. They dressed like German vacationers (shorts, socks and dress shoes) and they looked for either German food or Germanized Italian food during their stay. The Italian chefs adapted, of course, and the typical local cuisine became limited only to secret places for residents “in the know”. Pity.

    After I’d emigrated to Texas, everyone gave me tips as to where the best German restaurants are. I said, thanks for letting me know where not to go!

    Hell, what’s the point in traveling if I try to drag my home front along with me. Might as well stay put.

    Believe it or not – I’ve heard people express suspicion about this so-called “organic stuff”. (Probably made by them ‘tree huggers…’) LOL

    We’re much too afraid of trying something new…making changes…exploring, experimenting. We’re comfortable in our boredom. We find a sense of security in the status quo. How lame is that?

    We trust our familiar (from TV, no less!) brands, not realizing that we are poisoned, slowly but surely.

    80 percent of ER visits could be prevented by eating local and fresh. O.k. – I made that number up, but how far off could I possibly be?

    • says

      Thanks, Achim, for giving your truly global perspective on this issue. Food is a huge part whenever I travel (across the city, state or country), and if it’s all the same, there really isn’t any point in leaving home.

      80%?! Wow! ;)

  6. says

    I like your point, Jenni. Let me counterpoint you (a little). Coming from the land of caffeine, I expect my coffee to be at a certain quality level. A couple years ago at one of the HNL Starbucks outposts, I received a beverage that was closer to coffee-flavored hot water than a latte. And I vividly remember my last Filet-O-Fish being undercooked and too scary to eat. Dammit, when I go to a chain I’m obviously expecting a completely homogenous experience. But Murphy’s Law will ensure that doesn’t happen to me!

    • says

      Well, that the other side of the coin; the side that was face down so I didn’t even mention it. If “consistently average” or at least “consistently consistent” isn’t always possible, is it really worth it to go to those places at all?

      I’m not saying that I don’t go to a Starbux every once in awhile or that we didn’t get Burger King during our move because we were starving and just apologized to the universe as we dug in, mind you. I’m just saying that if they try so hard to get it their-version-of-right and cannot, then are they really giving us what we want/expect/they think we want?

      Too scary too eat, huh? Now that paints a Vivid picture. Shudder.

  7. says

    I must say, between your posts, comments and replies, you have a great discussion going on here. Thanks!

    As I continue to read various cooking blogs and cook more on my own, I am beginning to think more and more about where I am buying my ingredients. I have been spoiled my whole life as we have a local farmer’s market right down the street where my mom and I shop often, including for Sunday Dinners. They are local and have great stuff, what could be better?

    Way back in high school, we went on a small school trip up to Boston. I was rooming with 3 other guys and we wanted to order some pizza so I suggested that we choose a local place instead of a chain. After waiting for 30ish minutes, my 3 friends were ready to kill me because the pizza hadn’t arrived yet. Luckily the pizza man knocked at our door not much later and it was great pizza. :) Always go local, even if it takes longer.

  8. says

    I must say, between your posts, comments and replies, you have a great discussion going on here. Thanks!

    As I continue to read various cooking blogs and cook more on my own, I am beginning to think more and more about where I am buying my ingredients. I have been spoiled my whole life as we have a local farmer’s market right down the street where my mom and I shop often, including for Sunday Dinners. They are local and have great stuff, what could be better?

    Way back in high school, we went on a small school trip up to Boston. I was rooming with 3 other guys and we wanted to order some pizza so I suggested that we choose a local place instead of a chain. After waiting for 30ish minutes, my 3 friends were ready to kill me because the pizza hadn’t arrived yet. Luckily the pizza man knocked at our door not much later and it was great pizza. :) Always go local, even if it takes longer.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  9. says

    Shane, I am enjoying the conversation. I’ve always wanted this to be a dialog and not a monologue, so I’m pretty happy!

    Like you, I haven’t always thought about where my food came from either. We are lucky to live so close to a wonderful farmer’s market now, but just a few years ago, I was all about the Cheese Doodles, if you know what I mean.

    We had to try two local pizza places in our old neighborhood before we found lucky number 3 pizza place, but we never stopped trying. It’s important to us to seek out the local stuff. In this new neighborhood, I think we’ve hit our supplier on the first go-round. Hooray!

    It would never have occurred to me to order local back in high school, especially on a school trip. You were ahead of your time. Glad you were vindicated with good pizza. :)

  10. says

    It’s going the same way in the UK now, where I live there are very few independent restaurants but hundreds of identical chains.

    I try to shop local when I can, I use the local butcher and shop at the farmers market, unfortunately it’s not always possible.

  11. says

    I do farmer’s markets when they’re well, obviously in season tho’ I admit I don’t always well ‘locavore’.

    I WILL however make things homemade as much as I can and I hardly eat out….I agree with you on how most people’s tastes have…settled…for the local McD’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s etc…

  12. says

    My Dad refused to take our family to Olive Garden when my brother and I were kids, no matter how many times we asked. When asked why not, he always replied that it was a chain, so the food wouldn’t be any good. Now that I’m all grown up (well, kind of) I never eat at chain restaurants if I can help it. (We all have those Arrived In An Unfamiliar City At 10pm And The Only Thing Open Is Chili’s moments.) Especially when I’m traveling. I make it my goal to seek out local food specialties, sometimes to the exclusion of anything else, like museums. Like ChefKeem said, if you’re just going to eat the same thing everywhere, what’s the point in leaving home?

  13. says

    Ah, we too prefer to go local, when possible. Alas, we just went camping out of season and there were, literally NO local restaurants open. NONE. They were waiting for tourist season. We got stuck at Applebees. Not awful, but not great either.

  14. says

    Yes, you can blame McDonald’s, but they were just catering to what people wanted with was a consistent experience no matter where you go. But that’s how any fast food chain is supposed to work. The good news is that quality does differ. As premixed and regimented as fast food chains try to be, there is definitely some variation from location to location. KFC for example is aweful in NYC for some reason, but I remember quite liking it in California… I imagine it has to do with the suppliers of the chicken and the the people frying it.

    Also, internationally, the food varies by market. For instance, in India (where beef is not eaten for religious reasons), McDonalds has had to create other alternatives.

  15. Ancient and Ornery in Wyoming says

    You know, I agree with your fundamental proposition. But I don’t know the answer to the problem that I see. I have been on the road a little, and it goes like this: I pull into a town, and there are places with signs advertising “good eats” but when you plunk down your money, you get dried out, boring bland, greasy foodlike stuff on your plate and you’re lucky if it doesn’t taste like the salt mine. And delivered with an attitude something along the lines of “I hate myself, this place I work, and you! I would rather plunk down my hard earned money on something that I believe has SOME quality control, so I find myself often pulling into the national chain stores.

    • says

      Hmmm, I guess I can understand that. No, I *do* understand that. By and large, that has not been my experience, though. Most of the small local places we’ve been to have actually had good food and at least fairly pleasant service.

      It is definitely a Conundrum.

  16. Kathleen B. Jamison says

    Could U please tell me what fruit or vegetable you have a photo of. I have seen these before but I might have missed if U mentioned. I do hope U will answer me as quickly as possible. As much as I have read you really have a talent. I live in Tucson As these are new to meThank You in Advance

    Kathye

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