Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another curmudgeonly chain rant.

Over at the Louisville Restaurant Forum, we’ve had another dust-up over the eternally divisive topic of chains.

Regular readers know that when this discussion breaks out, it is my habit to refer you to Lew Bryson’s classic articulation of principle, “Death to Chain Restaurants.”

I suppose the part of all this that eternally fascinates and appalls me is the willingness of ordinary people to bang their fists on the counter in defense of freedom and the individual even as they swill rancid Budweiser from the bottle, march meekly off to Wal-Mart to shop, and grab a cold Big-Mac while there.

The illogic eventually becomes so grotesquely configured that you find yourself reading a newspaper columnist who upholds the veracity of mass-market, brand-name motorcycle culture while expressing disgust with small-batch, craft brewing. It’s rather hypocritical, but worse than that, it’s utterly self-defeating.

During the course of this recent discussion, someone offered the following alibi, one that eerily parallels the “beer as cheap workingman’s drink” line of non-reasoning offered by the columnist:

"McDonalds maybe the only option for some people."

Indeed, that’s just plain sad. Does anyone read books, or pay attention to news, or observe culture outside that of a television commercial? Consider these contemporary chronicles:

Supersize Me.
Fast Food Nation.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
Lite Doesn’t Make Right (well, I haven’t written it quite yet)

Apparently not. Ever wondered why we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic?

My stances on these matters don't come from thin air. They also don't come from envy, jealousy or any other shallow “sez you” non-issue designed to deter the real gist of the debate. Rather, and to the surprise of some, there exists such a thing as a matter of principle, and I intend to stand on my principles, or else I’ll throw in the towel and pick a different way to kill 30 more years until I'm gone – although I suspect at this point I’m unemployable.

I suppose it would be nice to have more money, even if I generally have enough for my needs already. Perhaps my business could make more money by selling Budweiser, or installing karaoke, or hiring Hooters girls, or applying a cookie cutter to the operation by watering its uniqueness down and lowering the overall common denominator, which are the inevitable results of cloning, franchising, chaining, or whatever we want to call it.

But I couldn’t do it. There would be this problem looking in the mirror each morning, and besides that, I persist in thinking that this is supposed to be about art as much as it is commerce. Call me the last of the romantics (cynics drink a lot for a reason, you know), and maybe we actually should examine if there’s something in the water to trigger this enduringly insane American genetic trait of judging merit solely in monetary terms.

Hey, it's cheap – but is it good? This concept is profitable – but is it ethical? Same great plasticized layout, coast to coast – but how much soul do we sacrifice to have this cheap, easy monoculture?

Ironically, let someone come along and begin asking questions like these, and suddenly it’s all personal, and people get uptight. Sorry about that, but discomfort is even more reason to be the gadfly, which in the final analysis is my preference in life. In point of fact, I do take freedom very seriously, and to me, the quickest way to lose it is to forget who we are and where we came from, and to begin substituting straitjacketed orthodoxy and artificial atmosphere for the true wonders of diversity and what’s really real.

Mrs. Curmudgeon and I dined at the Bistro New Albany last evening. Chef Dave cooked a custom-built pasta dish for her, while I sampled a small portion of Venetian seafood soup before tearing into a rack of medium rare New Zealand lamb. If a chain restaurant could do it better and cheaper, I’d have only one choice: Order it again at the Bistro New Albany. It’s a matter of principle. I’m truly saddened that principle has gone out of style hereabouts.

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