Community, Nostalgia, and the Bent-Over Hot Dog Vendor

Wright Thompson eulogizes hot dog vendor Gus Koutroulakis, and what he represents. From the article:

You’ve probably never heard of a Birmingham dog. If you live outside a tiny radius, they don’t exist. Maybe your hometown has a food tradition like that. Is there something you once took for granted that you crave now that it’s gone? For people who grew up in or near the Magic City, that’s a Special Dog.

Traditions like that are called foodways, which is just a fancy word for any piece of food culture that sprung from the furnace of a time and a place. Food that tells a story about who we are. My friend, John T. Edge, who runs the Southern Foodways Alliance, is an evangelist against their extinction. His team is involved in many projects, but all share a common thread. They try to preserve things that, once gone, can never be recreated.

The surviving little mom-and-pop spots are frontier outposts. I think of Pete’s Famous. I think of Vinny’s at Night in the back of a Somerville, Mass., superette. I think of the Old Saloon in Emigrant, Mont., where I had hash browns and Budweiser for breakfast, and then played their upright piano. I think of all the places we’ve lost already. When I was a child, I loved fried chicken at Arnold’s in Clarksdale, Miss., and a hamburger at Chamoun’s Grocery. They’re gone. We all remember our favorite places like that. We fiercely romanticize those that remain. We hunger for them when we move away to find work or start a new life.

Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is the Food Network response to this sense of nostalgia, and why not? Setting aside the clown-antics of the host, the show itself seems to be an admission that food, both in our recent past and even today, is more blue collar, more dirt and grit, than some people are willing to concede. A hot-dog, all-the-way, purchased in a shop in Birmingham that would be no larger than a hallway in other restaurants, means more to some of us than the intricate pleasures of El Bulli could ever attempt.

Why?

I think how lucky I am to live in Seattle, and have access to all of the suburbs and neighborhoods in the surrounding region. Here, the small diner is king, and franchised restaurants, with their “let’s cater to the lower common denominator” attitude take a back seat. Where I currently live, there are three Japanese restaurants, three Thai, four teriyaki, three American diners, two pubs and countless other smaller restaurants that cater to different aspects of my neighborhood. Each individually owned by, not a conglomerate, or corporation, but by a person or family. These people feed us on a daily basis. These aren’t places that are so unique that they become a place to only go to on special occasions. These are places that exist in the community, and become part of the landscape, rather than outside of it. They are accessible by everyone, because they are for everyone.

It’s also interesting to compare these places to the one KFC, one Jack in the Box, and two McDonald’s in the area, the only franchised restaurants within a mile and a half radius from where I currently rest my head. The sit in our neighborhood with no connection to the community other than where their foundation hits the ground. They sit, soulless, and ultimately, replaceable. They could be removed tomorrow, and our neighborhood would barely bat an eyelash. However, when a local diner shuts its doors when their place becomes to expensive to operate, the neighborhood stops by to say good-bye.

What people like Gus Koutroulakis represent is simply a tie to where we live; a face to a place or era. His loss leaves us at a fork in the road. We can look upon his life, and the place where he worked, with a sense of nostalgia, and lament his loss over a plate of bloomin’ onion at an Outback Steakhouse.

Or we can head out to the type of place where the owner of the restaurant is working the back-line, or serves drinks behind the bar, or sits in the back office trying to find the better quality vegetable vendor, and we can get to know the people that work there, and let them get to know us. It matters not if its a pizza parlor or teriyaki joint, greasy spoon or Irish pub. We can lament the loss of our community and those who made it as such, or we can create it and foster its growth.

The choice is ultimately ours.