I am prompted to my theme by a restaurant review I just read about a place in San Diego that claims to sense authentic Jersey cheese steak sandwiches. Got that right? Not the venerable Philly cheese steak sandwich, but the “Jersey“ cheese steak. So what’s the point, you ask?
Well, can you tell the difference between a double soy latte vente (who thinks this stuff up?) at one Starbuck’s or another; between a Big Mac at a McDonald’s in Paris, Texas or Paris, France? Not likely. Let me continue with a bit of memoir anecdote that leads further to my point.
Summer 1958. I was in my late teens and had been playing three sports in high school for four years. I used to burn enough calories very day to provide electricity for a country the size of Costa Rica. Almost every day (but mostly nights) I would pull up (in my 1956 Chevy) to an establishment (restaurant would not be an apt term) called Barney’s that was only about six football fields from my parents’ house.
There I would order (actually they knew my order from memory) the following (and you might have a hard time believing this): 3 “red hots” (bratwurst-sized hot dogs that are splayed open and grilled, while the “chef” waited with the bottoms of the buns lined up on the inside of his forearm). The “hots” would then be condimented with mustard, grilled onions, and a local specialty called “hot sauce” (made of ground beef and all sorts of secret spices—more on that stuff later). The hots would cover a large-sized paper dinner plate. Another plate would be covered with a mound of thick, greasy French fries with enough trans-fats to run a small fleet of buses. I would also order a large chocolate shake made with whole milk.
Needless to say (but I will), these days I would have add to my order: two paramedics, an oxygen tank and a de-fibrillator. But in those days I would gather these goodies for my favorite dining experience—savoring every last calorie of this feast while watching late night movies that began at 11:30PM. Now this I can scarcely believe myself, because I would then flop into bed and sleep soundly before the words “acid reflux” had even been invented (although we did have the Italian, agita, but I never got that either).
The world I grew up in was a world of Barney’s, Alex Brothers, Ackerman’s, and places like Nick Tahou’s in the gritty section of town, where they served a cardiac confection called “the Garbage Plate,” because that was what it looked like. People flocked to the ancient train terminal Tahou’s inhabited to board a tasty train to an early demise. There were also different pizza places, and varieties of other foods, but let me put in one more here. Some years later, when I was working as a planning consultant for Planner’s Collaborative, in Syracuse, New York, I was assigned responsibilities that took me to Binghampton, New York. I hated going there—one could easily get stuck in a snowstorm on I-81 and not be found until the Spring thaw—but I had discovered a placed that made something called a “speedie” that consisted of cubes of marinated lamb that were grilled on a skewer and then pulled off into a bun fresh from the oven. “Ambrosia” does not do it justice, as it does not Mrs. Iaccivangelo’s pizza that was made in an alley garage near my grandmother’s house.
But I am boring you and making you hungry at the same time. Wait! Don’t go rushing off to the frige or ordering in from (ugh) Pizza Hut.
These establishments are all what can be referred to as examples of “indigenity.” There are still many remaining and there are guidebooks and cable shows that extol the virtues of their victuals. Very often, they represent an entrepreneurial spirit born of the confluence of some mother’s recipe, an ethnic taste in sauce or spice, and the desire to remain different and original in a world of capitalist marketing or corporate power that is best represented in that disgusting word, “branding.”
By “indigenity” we mean to notion of “nativeness,” of something that has sprung from the soil of the indigenous locality, of ethnicity, and from the evolution of time and circumstance—not the homogenizing tastes of focus groups and the greediness for “market share.” We mean something that is expressive of authentic tastes that belong to a place, even a time. This should not e confused with a somewhat kindred concept, the “niche,” which has been aptly appropriated by “marketing” the way that salads have been added to the menu at McDonald’s.
Nor should the concern expressed here for the vulnerability of indigenity be seen as limited to food. In fact, indigenity is threatened in almost all realms of human behavior. In housing, for example, the necessities of public safety and the exigencies of scalability have conjoined with the massification of production to produce perhaps the worst expressions of residential exclusiveness and banality—the suburban, gated “community,” and its funerary relative and vestibule to permanent internment, the “adult retirement community.” Clothing, automobiles, cruise lines, television, recreation, indeed commerce in general (viz. Wal Mart) are all subject to mass production, marketing, distribution, consumption and tastes.
The mall is the archenemy of the neighborhood, a concoction of branded emporiums that provide the prime recreation of inmates of the gated community. You will not likely find a Barney’s (not the NYC clothing establishment, but the one that dispenses “hots,” not hot fashion), a Mrs. Iaccivangelo’s, or a place daring enough to offer Jersey cheese-steak sandwiches or—could-you-believe-it?—“garbage plates” in Mall of America? Oh, there might be a concession to a “food court” that allows for the range of “safe” culinary choices.
The forces of conformity and massification are not unaware of the spirits of indigenity that stir in the souls of humans. They are cognizant that there is something uniquely human in the tendency or drive for individuality, inventiveness, and expressiveness. Indeed, it can be argued that economic growth would be impossible without the tinkering of the Wright brothers or a relative of mine who was the first to take his mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe and put it in a jar. Most everything that has made the big board and “gone global” has started out as an expression of something local and indigenous. And it must be admitted as well that the temptations of being “bought out,” of becoming a recognizable “logo” from one Paris to another, can be difficult to resist.
More and more our cityscapes are likely to be embellished with corporate logos and ads, and our old indigenous neighborhoods and their commercial establishments to be replaced by the McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, KFCs, Starbucks and Wal Marts. It will be harder to feel like you are anywhere when everywhere is anywhere. It will be harder to grab a notebook and write a few paragraphs about an experience that is truly an experience (who sends a postcard from that McDonald’s in Paris saying that you had a Big Mac and Fries).
Yet, in the interstices of the city, where the streets are narrower and grittier, where places are still called taverna, bistro, osteria, dai pai dong, or “Nick’s Bar,” Wong’s Laundry, or just plain Hotel or Albergo, where there is still some margin for discovery, surprise, and connection with—even with the difference—what is common to our humanity, that we are beings of Time and Place. In those places they will, given our patronage, know our order, if not our names; they will know that we are their patrons because we appreciate their difference, not their conformity to some standard of the conforming zeitgeist. They will fight to maintain their uneasy grasp upon their estate against the onslaughts of rising property values, gentrification, and the capitalist canons of “highest and best use.” Many will perish, usually never to arise again, to live only in the mnemonic recesses of those of us who can summon only in memory of “the best hot sauce in town.”
Indigenity is dead. Long live indigenity. (Now you can go to the frige, or out for some “hots,” or a “garbage plate.”)
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.17.2010)
This subject was also addressed with respect to San Diego in a newspaper articles and a broadcast on KPBS-Public Radio in May 1991. Listen to a podcast of the radio feature by clicking on the following link: “Chic-ing of Hilcrest”