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Regional American specialties - why scarce beyond their regions? (long)

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Regional American specialties - why scarce beyond their regions? (long)

Josh | Aug 20, 2003 11:56 AM

As countless Chowhounds will attest, searching for authentic regional American specialties outside of their original regions is usually futile. Having recently sought, in vain, a New York City vendor of the roast beef sandwich native to Massachusetts' North Shore, I've been trying to come up with explanations for the failure of regional specialties to spread to other regions. Here are some of my ideas.

One obstacle preventing the export of regional foods is regional taste. When Chicagoans hanker for pizza, the specific style they have in mind is probably Chicago deep dish. No wonder New York thin crust pizza is hard to come by in Chicago; the locals don't want it. As for those quirky foods that face no competition from a beloved local version, insufficient demand probably confines these to their hometowns.

Another obstacle is the supply of ingredients, especially seasonal foods. In the era before speedy interstate shipping, nearly all American cuisine was local and seasonal, for people ate only what was grown nearby. These days one can dine on Maryland blue crabs in Las Vegas. But those crabs don't taste quite as good as those straight out of the Chesapeake Bay. Setting also plays a powerful role. I bet many Mainers would argue that steamed lobster eaten in the rough at a coastal lobster shack tastes better than an identically prepared lobster served in an upscale restaurant.

These factors, however, don't explain why you can hardly find a true Philly cheesesteak outside Philadelphia. Natives of other cities want them (if the proliferation of mediocre cheesesteak shops is any indication); there is probably no preferred local version; the ingredients are readily available; and an outlandish setting, while important, probably wouldn't ruin the experience of eating a really good one.

So perhaps what's missing is craftsmanship. Few people ever work in a regional-specialty emporium and thereby learn how to cook those specialties properly. Of these, only a tiny number ever move away and decide to open restaurants. At this point, an additional obstacle might kick in: profitability. It seems to me that many regional American specialties are basically fast food, or one step up. I have no experience in the restaurant business, but my guess is that fast food only makes real money if turnover is high. Cultivating sufficient demand for an unfamiliar food is much harder than dishing out something people are acquainted with. Consequently, restaurateurs who long to start a Philly cheesesteak shop either launch a midpriced Mexican place – or they take the plunge, fold, and endure as Chowhound memories.

Have other Chowhounds got ideas about this phenomenon? Or examples of regional American specialties that you can eat in other regions without a major sacrifice of authenticity? (New York-style pastrami in Miami comes to mind.)

Let me assure you that my purpose is not to promote the spread of regional specialties. I celebrate regional cuisine, enjoy it wherever I go, and scorn pretenders. I'd just like to figure out why this spread doesn't occur.

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