The homogenization of food culture

My grandfather, who is now 100 years old, lives in Mobile, Alabama. I have certain fantastic memories of Mobile from visits during my youth – memories at the tactile and immediate level at which kids experience the world. Moss. Gekkos. Huge live oak trees knitting branches together to form a spectacular living canopy over the main street downtown. Canals. The Causeway. The old ice house. Krispy Kreme donuts (way before the IPO and/or any book-cooking) at 5:00am on the way to a fishing trip on the Gulf Shores pier.

I didn’t visit Mobile for a long stretch and was faintly dismayed to return as an adult and find: Barnes and Noble. Chili’s. And their ilk. The city still has its own particular character but is surrounded and invaded by the same chains I can visit in Bellingham, Mass.  And Colorado Springs. And everywhere else.

Salma Abdelnour has a deadeye column in this month’s Food and Wine magazine about “The Insidious Rise of Cosmo-Cuisine.” It’s not targeted at chains, but the complaint is the same. There’s a sense of loss when you can find the same food everywhere. Business trips generally don’t accomodate too much poking around the backstreets of whatever town to find the local cuisine. David Churbuck writes here about the same impulse to find something local and authentic. Amen – travel is about the food. Hope we don’t lose all regional distinctions. Actually I’m hankering for a bowl of Cincinnati chili right now – three way – but I’m not sure I’d feel the same if there were a Skyline Chili in every town in America.

3 thoughts on “The homogenization of food culture

  1. cool post….made me really think about stuff, and this is what i came up with….
    i’m not a fan of chain restaurants, i prefer the “mom and pop” places, the places that have thier own recipes and dishes. if given a choice between a national chain restaurant or a no-name place, i go to the no-name place. i can’t see the small places being put out of business by chians, despite the unending supply of lemmings and lazy picky people who want to only eat at “established” chains, there is a strong group of others who enjoy culinary adventure. all that said, there are some places in the states where a chain restaurant is preferable, and for anyone who might get homesick or put off by traveling, the sameness provides some kind of recognizable stability. you go to a new place, you don’t have to gamble your time trying different small places to find the good food, you just go to chili’s and get what you always get. there is a good point to chains, i just wish the chain restaurant was in the minority, and there were more local restaurants per capita. that’s my opinion anyway…

  2. Hi Chessloser – Your analysis seems fair. I eat at chains and yes, there is a convenience factor and a familiarity factor. On rare occasions you even get a really good meal there. In our area, and I’ve heard this from other people elsewhere, Outback generally seems to train their cooks and try to serve good food. On the other end of the spectrum in my experience are Applebee’s and Chili’s, which either is on a downhill slide or needs a new regional manager for New England. The worst used to be TGI Friday’s; I have avoided it for so long and seen so many changes to their menu that perhaps they’ve gotten a clue since I last visited. (But why risk it?) If they have improved, I’d say they’re bucking the general tide. Restaurant chains get worse over time. Presumably that’s due to the old “push for higher margins” game. See previous post on the Weber Thesis :)

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