When I was growing up travel was so much more of an adventure. These days travel around America, especially by car, means driving past the same box stores, eating at the same chain restaurants, and hearing homogenized radio stations. Gone forever are so many regional differences that once made even relatively short trips wonderful.
I can recall travels as a child and as a teen that contained experiences which still informs so much of my existence. Stopping at a diner in the Smokey Mountains and experiencing the indigenous foods from that region lets me know that Cracker Barrel is just an approximation. Even shopping centers and what have become known as strip malls, ugly even then, were made up of regional chains and local shops.
Music has always been a huge part of my life. It is still as important to me as food and wine, and once was the most important thing I could imagine. There were incredible differences depending on where in the country you happened to be. There were national hits and regional hits. Where I come from people just a little older than me used to tell of how Bob Seger played their high prom or how Ted Nugent tore it up at some high school dance. I remember this strange guy who didn’t seem to know what genre he liked best so he would mix them all up who played the clubs in the area. He is now perhaps one of the last real rock stars we might see and goes by the name Kid Rock.
These regional acts would learn their trade and polish their act so that when that big break eventually came they really were stars that shone so brightly the whole world had no choice but to pay attention. But before that happened the radio stations in their area would play their music. It was incredible to travel around and hear how every area of the country had their own sound and style. These days, not only are all of the radio stations owned by the same five or six companies all across the country, all sounding exactly the same, the music they play is either old, or it is the creation of marketing departments instead of coming from an artist. Homogenization might be wonderful for milk, but is deadly to art and culture.
As we travel on our freeways that increasingly tend to go around or over the cities we pass, so often we look for those ubiquitous signs informing us that the next stop has a KFC, Steak and Shake, Chilis, or the aforementioned Cracker Barrel. Many see value in knowing that the food at one of these places will be the same as it is at home. It will taste the same and it will cost the same, even the decor will be familiar.
While that may be comfortable and relatively safe, it is also a damn shame. Food is one of the few things left that is unique to our many regions. Not only can it help define an area as unique and special, it allows the residents of that area to share something special with anyone willing to try something new or different.
Most of the time when someone mentions a place that I have been the first thing I associate with it are memories of tastes. Mention Chicago and pizza comes to mind, Memphis or Austin make me think of two different but equally delicious styles of BBQ, California wine country reminds me of vegetables so sweet that they taste like candy. When I recall that childhood trip to the Smokey Mountains that I referred to earlier, I remember tasting biscuits and gravy and sausage that were so redolent with smoke that it seemed to be more a texture than a flavor.
Even my hometown of Toledo, the place where I have eaten more meals than anywhere else, is associated with certain flavors in my mind. Despite it having more that its share of chains, and also having a large diversity in local dining choices, there are certain foods that define the city for me. I grew up in a Polish neighborhood and became familiar with foods like pirogies and kielbasa. In addition, it seems that there is a Middle Eastern restaurant or deli on every corner. My love for kibbi and kafta, pita bread, hummus and grape leaves began there. Then there is Tony Packo’s. For fans of the TV show M*A*S*H, yes it is a real place, and yes the hot dogs are as unique and delicious as Max Klinger said they are.
Now that I am in Houston there are foods that I will always associate with this place. There is BBQ, of course, but also so much more. Like Middle Eastern food back home, Asian food of all types are available everywhere in Houston. There is also a huge Cajun influence due to the influx of people from Louisiana over the years. The Gulf provides a bounty of fresh seafood, as well. But for me, I will associate my adopted hometown with the Texas variation on the Czech pastries known as kolaches. Nothing says “good morning” in Texas to me like smoked sausage, jalapeños and cheese baked inside a slightly sweet pastry.
I do not think that we can fix what our Walmart culture has broken, and music will probably never be as important as it was, but we can help preserve the regional differences in food. When you travel, pass right on by the familiar and seek out something unique and representative of the area. Daring to step out of our comfort zones and trying something new allows us to bring home souvenirs that can’t be broken, lost, or need dusted.
Celebrating our regional differences lets us define our culture, playing it safe with the familiar and mediocre will only kill it. Food may be our last best chance to avoid being nothing but a nation of consumers with an ever shrinking number of choices. Then maybe, just maybe, the culture of food and wine might lead us back to art, music and choice.