Monday, February 01, 2010

Complicating Localism

"I'll take the falafel with Thai sauce over curry with a side of jambalaya sushi and a Brooklyn Lager, please." This is what I imagined myself ordering at the Giraffe Restaurant at Heathrow airport, which promises "international cuisine." In a fit of localist conviction, I "protested" the well-marketed but pretentious Giraffe and ate, full of self-satisfaction, at the same terminal's "English pub." Even if Heathrow was barely recognizable as London, I was going to be true to place. I was then served my Fish n' Chips by a Checkoslovakian. On the next trip through, too tired for my principles, I surrendered to the superior menu of Giraffe, and it was a decent meal. Such a restaurant, I realized, can actually highlight local foods worldwide that might not otherwise have been noticed. Considering the people coming through Heathrow airport, Giraffe may have been being most true to place. I'm glad, however, for the sake of non-airport localities, that the chain seems to be limiting itself to flight terminals.

Similarly, consider celebrity American chef Bobby Flay. At first glance, what could be more destructive to localist principles than Flay's show Throwdown. He's the perfect villain set on assaulting America's neighborhood variety - and he hits where it hurts: in the stomach. American towns may have cultivated their own, culinary oddities: Texas chile, Kansas City Barbecue, Maine lobster sandwiches, Buffalo wings, etc. But here comes the big city chef with network executive back-up, sexy assistants, and a film crew to beat these local chefs at their own game. The aim of this program - so it would seem - is to humiliate. Flay and his crew roll in to show those silly non-New Yorkers that there's nothing they can cook up that iron chefs can't just as easily accomplish with their razor-sharp mandolines and ten-thousand dollar ovens.

Problem is, that's not what it's like at all. The actual result of Flay's show is to highlight American localities, who might not get the attention otherwise. It certainly helps that Flay is not a jerk. Often he just can't top local recipes, and he's a good sport about it. Even if he does top the recipes, the result is a new level of attention to a worthy hometown chef. Flay's show, furthermore, is his own kind of localism. Born and raised in NYC, this is one way he seems to have grappled with the country coming to him.

When American urban elites, in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, mock the ideals of localism by caricaturing small town America, they are rightfully criticized. But Sinclair is one option among several. In the case of Flay, the potentially oppressive apparati of the big city media machine does not minimize localism, but magnifies it. In fact, Flay, and Heathrow's Giraffe, are dependent upon vibrant localism for their success. The word for this is not "colonialism," but symbiosis.