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Navigating by the neon lights of Taco Bell or Tim Hortons

By Jackson Murphy
web posted December 8, 2003

There has been plenty of commentary this year proclaiming the emergence of a cooler, hipper, Canada. Indeed The Economist reported in September that, "Today's Canada is neither boring nor so exciting that it is on the brink of disintegration."

Then just this past week The New York Times reported that our hip ways are opening up rifts with our southern friends. "Canadians and Americans still dress alike," reports Clifford Krauss. "Like the same books, television shows and movies, and trade more good and services than ever before."

But much of that hip edge comes at the expense of our neighbors to the south. Krauss went on to say that "from gay marriage to drug use to church attendance, a chasm has opened up on social issues that go to the heart of fundamental values." Our hipness is only a construct of simply being different.

Christie Blatchford, writing about the trial of sniper Lee Malvo for The Globe and Mail in Chesapeake, Virginia devoted an entire column to describe her surroundings and how difficult it was to figure how to find her way home and how bad the food was. Her dispatch seems to convey that the problem with America is in trying to offer goods, sometimes the same ones conveniently everywhere.

"My hotel is around the corner from a Taco Bell too, but even I knew enough not to try to find my way home using it; there are Taco Bells every half mile. Ditto the shopping mall, the Target, the Barnes and Noble, the Sears, the Starbucks, the Hampton Inn, the Holiday Inn, the Red Roof Inn, the car dealerships, the Home Depot, the Best Buy, the Toys ‘R Us, the Olive Garden, the huge Rite-Aid drive in pharmacy."

Don't ever try and navigate in Canada using this sign as a marker
Don't ever try and navigate in Canada using this sign as a marker

This is the sort of juvenile carping that makes us sound no better than the sniveling elitists of Europe. As if Blatchford could not write the same thing about most of Canada's suburbs substituting Taco Bell with Tim Hortons and Barnes and Noble with Chapters.

Her summary judgment of the highways and eating establishments in suburbia America is not very novel. She says the food is "blandly cooked, so covered with hideous sauces, and served in such enormous portions" that it in no way represents the fish she intended to order. It's hard to say why she was eating at places like The Olive Garden or whatever other chain restaurant she plunked herself down at but it probably has more to do with the size of her The Globe and Mail expense account than of any real research on the local cuisine. If you go looking for simple food and chose a chain restaurant you're going to find it.

In the wake of 9/11 another journalist looking for an angle was eating at an Olive Garden and came to similar conclusions. "The Olive Garden Italian restaurant looks a little more promising than the dozens of other eating places along the strip mall just off Interstate 20 in Birmingham, Alabama," wrote the Guardian reporter. "The discreet hint of Tuscan decor and the passable wine list disguise the fact that there are 476 other Olive Gardens across North America, all with precisely the same menu." The writer was actually surprised to learn that the Alabama Olive Garden was surround by, well, more of Alabama and full of Americans. Imagine.

This was the article, which really helped to launch writer James Lileks in the hearts and minds of many in the circles of the blogosphere. His subsequent "fisking" of this piece is what legends are made of.

"One of these branches is in my home town of Fargo, North Dakota," writes Lileks. "It's packed every time we go there, and we go there because my family likes it, because the salad comes in bowls the size of Jayne Mansfield's bra cups, and the portions will satisfy you for the rest of the night. There's one dish I like - an angel-hair pasta with olive oil, diced tomato and seasoned chicken. Nothing special - I can make it at home, but whenever I find myself at an Olive Garden I know there's one dish I'll enjoy."

Anyone who has ever been to the sprawling suburbs of Vancouver in places such as New Westminster, Surrey, and Richmond or the in the orbit of Toronto and it's culturally devoid wastelands masking as suburbs will recognize the America Blatchford is describing. Anyone who has been in the stale environment of Tim Hortons or eaten in the various chains native to Canada would be perfectly at home in a Krispy Kreme or an Olive Garden.

At least Blatchford doesn't extrapolate that this all somehow means that George W. Bush is really a complete moron and, you know, that places like the Olive Garden offer the same thing at every single restaurant because American's are just a bunch of troglodytes. Her truth, "that the anonymous, homogenous suburbs are all the same, interchangeable one with the other, and that this bloody Middle America, like it or not," is a farce.

This is about as ground breaking as saying that every single coffee bar on the Champs Elysee is somehow a reflection on the homogeneousness of Paris. Actually you hope every coffee bar in Paris is the same with great coffee and a snotty French waiter to serve it. But have the same Starbucks on every corner and it is a blotch on society.

These complaints suggesting that the existence of multiple locations and conformity are bad miss the whole point. Invading the suburbs with all the things that used to be only offered in the cities is a good thing.

The fact that we, as Virginia Postrel writes in her latest book The Substance of Style, suggests, "expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, several different cuisines, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations, and a nail salon for manicures on demand" is a positive step forward not back.

There is a great deal of people in Canada who honestly believe that everyone south of the 49th parallel is really just a gun toting, pick-up driving hick who can't tell the difference between the food at Olive Garden from pig slop. Listen, America doesn't hold the monopoly on hicks and Canada has no shortage of pick-ups. It is as if to say that the people of Surrey British Columbia or Edmonton, Alberta or Burlington, Ontario have somehow found the cultural Rosetta Stone.

The whole idea is completely absurd. Most people are caught in a rock and a hard place. They actually enjoy the fruits of the American cultural juggernaut but just don't want to admit that to their snotty friends at a cocktail party. Like it or not you can navigate through America and Canada by the neon signs of Taco Bell, Tim Hortons, Wal-Mart, or Starbucks.

Big deal. That doesn't make us bad, and it certainly doesn't mean we are all the same. It doesn't make us any cooler than them. It doesn't even mean that all Americans are the same; it just means that when you need a mocha or huge salad or fattening donut you can get it.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7.

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