It remains lost to time precisely when we Americans began replacing those real, indigenous, rib sticking, soul warming, handmade expressions of our culture and our selves with ersatz, commodified, mass producible simulacrums of the same.
We know it happens--swinging jazz as it emerged from Mississippi River whorehouses and gambling dens, a music predicated on the individuality of soloists, gives way to the lite jazz music beds behind crawls on The Weather Channel, a style so generic it can be produced and successfully sold by faceless stock music houses; neo-eclectic developments of enormous houses of sheetrock and plywood adorned in brickface and stoneface surreally evoke the grandeur, elegance and substance of old mansions with none of the substance.
Maybe this replacement process began right away, in the earliest decades of the republic, with the emergence of the first blackface song, Backside Albany, in 1815, and over the subsequent decades with the institutionalization of the minstrel show--not merely a staged presentation of faux African American music and humor but also a production that became so formalized and franchise-able that publishers were able to issue instruction manuals for its staging.
Certainly the replacement process picked up speed with mechanization and mass production in the middle of the 20th century, a time when mechanization and mass production themselves became symbols of American genius and ingenuity. But it seems that during the post war expansion things really got out of hand, when the substitution process itself became a revered symbol of American progress, when atomic age conveniences like freeze dried instant coffee came close to promising the perfection of mankind.
We flock to ersatz attractions--like the faux street-scapes of Paris, New York, Luxor that adorn the Vegas strip--and most of all we love ersatz food: not only the McDonald's hamburger but also Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell nachos, et al.: cheap, profitable, and easy to sell replicas of our national cuisine; and is there any more surreal American institution than the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store--with its faux front porches, its indifferent food, and its fake rural storefront jammed with made-in-China tchochkes?
It's become all put impossible to find examples of the original versions of the institutions that inspired these substitutes. How many small, independent burger joints, chili houses, and fried chicken shacks with made to order meals does one come across anymore? And hard times have only made things worse: "According to NPD Group, there are 15,000 more chain restaurants now than there were five years ago--a 5 percent increase. During the same time period, there was nearly a 1 percent decline in the number of independent restaurants," reports The Daily Beast in introducing its photo gallery 40 Fast-Food Capitals, a photo essay exploring the American cities where there are the largest number of fast food chains per capita.
Florida is the state most dominated by ersatz food with three cities--Orlando, Miami, and Tampa--in the top 10. And the chain that is growing fastest? Subway!
With more than 34,000 restaurants in nearly 100 countries, Subway is the single largest chain restaurant brand in the world with more outlets than McDonald's. That makes it one of the nation's most important cultural exports, an institution by which America is more widely known than, say, Boeing, Apple, or Harley Davidson.
The dramatic growth of Subway is, to me, one of the grand, unfathomable mysteries of contemporary American life. It's easy for me to wrap my head around the production and price advantages that ersatz food establishments like McDonald's possess--assembly line cookery of mass manufactured, frozen ingredients makes for uniform end product, speedy production, and relatively low retail prices. Speedy service and cheap prices, not taste, have always been the primary appeals of ersatz food. But Subway doesn't cook food (at least not primarily), it sells sandwiches. There's little to streamline in process of assembling a sandwich--slicing cold cuts, slicing bread, daubing condiments, assembling components. And a virginia ham and cheese on a roll with mustard is pretty standard from one non-chain sandwich shop to another. Subway's most popular sandwich, the 8 oz, 450-calorie Italian BMT (salami, pepperoni, ham, cheese), at $5.40 not including tax, is slightly cheaper than an Italian combo at my local pizzeria here in metro NYC, but it's also significantly smaller. On an ounce for ounce basis the prices are competitive.
I will conceded that Subway's ersatz American sandwich is at least as fair a representation of the real American sandwich--Dagwood Bumstead overstuffed with multiple meats and cheeses in contrast with the minimalist simplicity of many a European sandwich--as the McDonald's burger is of the real American burger. But of course that's damning with faint praise. And I understand how Subway has managed to grab marketshare from the likes of McDonald's and Burger King--targeting an appeal to health conscious eaters even as it sells italian combos and cheese steaks. But what I don't understand is why consumers would substitute a trip to Subway for a trip to the local sandwich shop.
Yes, I'm old enough to remember and long for the great old neighborhood delis of German, Jewish and Italian immigrants. I'm lucky enough to live in a part of the world where such places--though dwindling in numbers--still exist. Around here a trip to the kosher deli for half a pastrami on rye, a cup of matzoh ball soup, and a big plate of half sour pickles; or a trip to the Italian pork store for coppa, mozzarella and roasted peppers on a roll is still a cherished joy. But even when I'm not in the vicinity of great delis, the indifferent contemporary sandwich shop--with its pre-sliced Boar's Head cold cuts and industrial packaged bread--stands as a something for which a chain substitution offers no meaningful advantage.
Maybe we've just become so used to artificial substitute experiences that we've lost our ability to appreciate the real thing.