Friday, September 9, 2011

Missive from the Hinterlands: Another 'Burger Joint Opens in Little Rock, and We Go Wild

We're all aflutter in Small Stone (aka Little Rock) because--get this--a new hamburger joint has opened in town.  It doesn't take much to awe us in the sticks, and the latest culinary shock-and-awe trick in our neck of the woods is to open a new 'burger joint, proclaim that it's serving "slow," locally raised products and that its buns and fixings are "house-made," and the local food mavens go wild with praise.

A return to the roots of traditional Arkansas cuisine!  Buns baked in house!  Pickles pickled on site!  House-made ketchup!  Farm-raised beef, grass-fed cattle slaughtered as humanely as possible! 

It doesn't get better than that!  Cuisine can't get any hauter than the latest 'burger joint to come down the pike and proclaim itself slow and local--for us in Small Stone, at least.  

But here's the problem with all these claims.  These 'burger joints are almost all that's opening in our area these days, restaurantwise.  And so the shouts of praise with which our local food critics and the local media greet the opening of yet another of these places begin to sound very tinny to the ears of anyone who knows much at all about real local food, and who wants to see our authentic local food traditions strengthened and maintained.

The shouts of praise begin to sound like media whoring, in fact, rather than accuracy in reporting.  They suggest that our local food critics don't know the first thing about food or about traditional Arkansas cuisine, and that they'll gladly compromise their integrity and reveal their ignorance by selling themselves to the next new comer on the burgeoning 'burger market.  Just because.

Because these 'burger establishments are now just about the only game in town, and they're also money-making ventures.  Their formula--a fairly obvious one, and therefore one that you'd expect reporters interested in accuracy in reporting to pick up on--is to sell hugely over-priced 'burgers, while justifying the price of the over-priced sandwich by marketing it as slow, local, and organic.  And the 'burgers are always accompanied, in these new eating establishments, with a large range of beers and other alcoholic beverages, also at premium prices.

In other words, these 'burger places are typical beer-and-'burger joints hyping themselves as breakthroughs in the culinary world, as a return to local culinary roots--roots that in the case of Arkansas, have nothing at all to do with hamburgers.  Which didn't even appear on the American culinary scene anywhere at all in their current fast-food incarnation until the first half of the 20th century.

At which point, they became a money-making formula for large chains that have, in fact, obliterated the particularities of local cuisines all across the land, rather than saving and enhancing local cuisines, as the ill-informed food mavens shilling for the new 'burger establishments want to claim.  The 'burger chains that have cornered the fast-food market across the U.S. since the middle of the 20th century have substituted hamburgers and french fries for healthy, interesting cuisines that used to use local products and make dishes appealing to local taste throughout the U.S.

And they've done this for one reason alone: to profit themselves while purveying their betrayal of anything approximating real local food or real healthy food to folks throughout the U.S., and, more importantly, to the children of folks throughout the U.S.  Children who are then taught to see a meal that is not a meal and is the antithesis of healthy--a hamburger and french fries--as a proper and nourishing meal.  One to be eaten day after day, with seriously deleterious consequences to the health of children raised on these non-meal meals.

And so our local media and local food mavens are not merely whoring for the latest 'burger joint to come along, when they praise these joints to the skies.  They're also implicitly whoring for the big corporations that have ruined authentic local cuisines throughout the U.S.--even as food authorities praise the latest local incarnations of these corporations disguising themselves as local and "slow," merely because their owners have thought up the nifty, economically profitable (and eminently dishonest) ruse of marketing the same old 'burger joint as a culinary temple to slow and local cuisine, simply because they bake their bread and make their pickles in-house, and use locally grown beef.

When all is said and done--and this seems curiously lost on the food critics praising the new 'burger places--all you have when one of these places opens is the same old beer joint serving quickly made and unhealthy fast food that many places in the U.S. need like a hole in the head.  Case in point: near the hotel at which Steve and I have stayed a number of times in recent years in St. Cloud, Minnesota, as we visit his relatives in that area, there used to be a wonderful little family-owned Vietnamese restaurant.

One of the things we looked forward to when we visited St. Cloud (which is, let's face it, not by any means a culinary heaven) was having a good bowl of pho at that little hole-in-the-wall place that served real food.  Traditional food.  Homestyle Vietnamese meals.

On our penultimate visit to St. Cloud in May, we were very sorry to find that this restaurant had closed, and in its place, a Five Guys 'burger joint has sprung up.  By the time we had driven to this restaurant's location, we were ravenous to eat anything at all, and since we have heard a lot of babble about Five Guys and were hungry--and our restaurant of choice had succumbed to the 'burger joint--we decided to give it a try.

We won't be back.  It was, in a word, gross.  The amount of meat served with even the small hamburgers we ordered: gross.  The piles of french fries: equally gross.  The whole 'burger-joint shtick, with its hyper-macho overtones and hordes of people (mostly male people) feeding on gargantuan servings of meat and fries: beyond gross.

This way culinary salvation does not lie, for us as a people.  But it's the way that will continue to be set before us by one profit-driven entrepreneur after another, as long as we put up with this trend with the bovine contentment we've displayed up to now re: the eradication of authentic local cuisines by 'burger places.  

What's perhaps most shameful of all about our acquiescence to this betrayal of real, healthy local food across the U.S. is the willingness of many food critics, including my badly educated local food authorities in Little Rock, to play right along with the betrayal, and even trumpet it as innovative and healthy, because entrepreneurs have become savvy enough to market their new 'burger joints as slow, healthy, and local, when they're clearly nothing of the sort.

I do wonder, though, as the local food critics publish their weekly paeans of praise to the latest "local" hamburger restaurant, whether they've ever given much thought to what they're doing to the health of their own children, or to the children of other families, as they encourage young folks to imagine they're having a healthy and even a traditional regional meal when they wolf down yet another 'burger.  Several decades down the road when those children have become obese adults struggling with high cholesterol levels, arterial disease, and diabetes, they may not be exceptionally wild about the willingness of their elders to sell their culinary birthright for a mess of 'burgers and fries. 

No comments: