Saturday, May 09, 2009

Not invented here

We do some things spectacularly well in the United States. And we do some things incredibly badly. Two of the latter are lunch and mass transit.

Street food
You can go out of your way in the United States to have a great lunch. And if you are in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime, you can probably get a good sandwich within a block or two or something hot and tasty from a street vendor. But outside of Manhattan, if you are where you are and it’s lunchtime, your choices are generally limited. If you’re driving, there are the fast food chains. If you are flying, there are the airport concourse MBA-ified sandwich-and-salad stands. If you are on a train or walking…no, wait, you’re in the U.S., so it’s absurd to think you’re on a train or walking.

In the parts of Europe I’ve been to, you would have to go quite a bit out of your way to have a bad lunch on the street. I suppose you could get fish and chips in England that’s merely ordinary, but almost everywhere you have choices of real food freshly and often imaginatively made, of good, fresh ingredients, many of them local, at affordable prices. The least interesting choices were American fast-food chains, which survive, I suppose, on their novelty value to populations bored with fabulous local food and on their familiarity to tourists immune to fabulous local food.

In nearly every town there are local market gardeners selling their own produce at stalls and markets. We have mostly lost the idea of buying produce from market gardeners in the U.S. Local farmers’ markets, in the places where we’ve brought them back, are tentative, partially subsidized in many cases, iffy things populated mostly by urban refugees who have learned organic gardening from books and patronized by well-off foodies who equate expensive with tasty. In Europe, the markets are part of the historic fabric of society, places where families have brought produce for generations and ordinary people shop on their way home from work. Yes, there are supermarkets. Yes, people have refrigerators. But fresh food tastes better than shipped-in food.

The difference is apparent from the air. The European landscape consists of population centers surrounded by farmland and forests. The American landscape consists of continuous sprawl in the main population corridors and vast expanses of farmland in areas with virtually no local population. It’s only the eccentric treehugger who thinks it sensible to eat locally in the U.S. We’ve paved all the good agricultural land near cities, because our money-based society deems the “highest use” of land to be that which brings the most dollars in a real estate market, not that which provides the best quality of life for the population.

Getting there
Similarly, private profit and socialized cost has driven the design of our transportation system. Trains don’t work, for the most part, because American politicians believe that trains don’t work. We need to send our local, regional, and national politicians and planners on an all-expense-paid junket to Europe. Let them go where they will and do what they want, with only a single rule: no automobiles allowed. Make them travel around by train rather than motorcade. After a day they’ll know that trains can indeed work. After a week, they’ll figure out how to make them work in the U.S. Maybe then we’ll begin moving in the right direction and by the right means.

I suppose…
I should relate all this to books and editing somehow, in furtherance of the plan of this blog. Okay, try this: The same ignorance, hubris, and narcissism that makes Americans think we know best and the rest of the world lags behind also gets in the way of authors who think they know best and don’t need the help of professionals to make their books the best they can be. A stretch? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

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