I live near Baltimore, Maryland, which has a strong local cuisine that consists of a lot of seafood, particularly crabs. Marylander’s love their steamed hard-shell and soft-shell crabs, always with Maryland’s famous Old Bay seasoning. I didn’t grow up around Baltimore, but whenever my family would travel here in the summer to visit relatives, we would always make a point to enjoy local crabs.
Other areas around the country enjoy similar local cuisines, each of which has deep historical roots and serves to culturally unite the region. Broadly speaking, Louisiana has its Cajun dishes. The American South generally has its local fare of fried chicken, dumplings, grits, collard greens, and much more. Philadelphia is known for its cheesesteak sandwiches. Kansas City loves its barbecue. New England loves its seafood (clam chowder anyone?). And of course Chicago has its pizza and hot dogs. This list is certainly not exclusive.
A Whopper in Beverly Hills looks and tastes just like a Whopper in Nowheresville, Arkansas, and probably costs about the same.
Over the last several decades, American local cuisine has been forced to give way to a large degree to the American national cuisine–chain restaurant food. King among them is fast food. Fast food restaurants are ubiquitous in every big town, small town, downtown, business district, countryside, highway exit, college campus, airport, Walmart, and mall across America. They consist of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Sonic, Hardees, Arby’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Papa Johns, Dunkin Donuts, and the list goes on and on. The fast food experience is uniform throughout the nation. A Whopper in Beverly Hills looks and tastes just like a Whopper in Nowheresville, Arkansas, and probably costs about the same.
Besides fast food, other well-known sit-down chain restaurants exist that are almost as ubiquitous. They include, T.G.I. Fridays, Ruby Tuesdays, Applebees, Chili’s, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Bob Evans, Red Lobster, and many others. Although these are not fast food, they again offer a uniform menu and dining experience throughout the nation.
I admit that in the past (before learning about the importance of traditional foods) I have participated in the national chain-restaurant infatuation. I’ve had, come many a chow-time, a habit of looking for a meal at a place that I know well. And this occurs not only in my hometown but also, and especially, when in a foreign city. Or when pressed for time, I’ve looked for something fast and convenient. Even when I was in Europe for a year in college years ago, when I was short on cash, I often resorted to eating at American fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s. And I know that I’m not alone on this. People are creatures of habit and naturally gravitate towards things that they trust. And they trust chain restaurants.
The tendency for people to eat at chain restaurants has made it difficult for local food establishments to survive
But this trend has taken its toll on local cuisines. The tendency for people to eat at chain restaurants has made it difficult for local food establishments to survive. Many are simply unable to compete with the familiarity, convenience, and low-cost of American chain restaurants. Those few local restaurants that do survive tend to be those that are particularly well-established, that cater to a niche, that serve as novelties, or that have adopted the chain-restaurant business model of low-cost, low-quality food.
It’s a shame. Because along with the disappearance of local food establishments and customs goes other things that are valuable for the health of both local economies and consumers. These lost things include support for the local farmers, restaurants, and other local food suppliers, a greater appreciation for the value of saturated fat and other important healthy components of food, and a greater tendency to follow traditional food preparation methods. And this is to say nothing of taste.
I’ll end on another personal note. In addition to crabs, Baltimore has another traditional local favorite–cold cut Italian subs. My mother remembers being a girl and often finding local sandwich shops that offered these subs with their unique flavor, drenched in olive oil, vinegar, and Italian seasoning. When she and my father visit Baltimore now, they are hard pressed to find even one such sandwich shop. While I’m sure that one exists, I don’t know where it is. I do, however, know lots of Subways.
But it’s just not the same, and nor are we.