We left early from Washington, DC to join the family reunion at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware - one of the oldest resort destinations in the US. These reunions happen every year or two, and over the past 20 years have frequented many of the venerable vacation spots in the US, including the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Jersey Shore, Santa Barbara, and Grand Haven on Lake Michigan. Rehoboth Beach has beautiful sandy beaches, affordable rentals, a mile-long boardwalk, and a plethora of rides, attractions, eateries, bars and ice cream parlors. The hoi polloi are long gone to places of a more exotic bent - Bermuda, Virgin Islands, Seychelles. What they have left behind is a retro experience tuned to the sensibilities and tastes of Middle America. How would we fare?
How America Drives. We were forewarned to get there early, as Saturday is the turn date - everyone departing from their week-long rentals, or arriving for the next week, at the same time. We got an early start, and made good time: across DC on L Street to New York Avenue, then a straight shot out until it becomes the multi-laned and speedy US 50. We were able to see how urban development had pushed the ghetto away from the White House (16th Street) and the core Avenue of America - Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capital. What used to be seedy areas in the single digit streets above Pennsylvania Ave were now gentrified and bustling. When we crossed beyond the area of renewal, the change was palpable. We hustled out of town and onto the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a modern marvel that spans one of the most fertile fisheries in the US. Making good time, we became overconfident and stopped at the first of many outlet store malls. When we arrived at Rehoboth Beach, we hit the Saturday crush. A mile of driving took an hour. In retrospect, better to come late; it is hard to get there from DC and miss the changeover of renters between 10 am and 2 pm.
Sitting in the jam, it was hard not to notice how the cars had changed. We had set off in the generic rental car - a Ford Taurus - but now found ourselves dwarfed by massive trucks, SUVs and minivans. We yearned to drive one of those big guys, sitting above the crowd. No little French "Smart Car" for us, especially not after a recent story out of Paris. Apparently the French version of the 911 emergency line got a frantic call from a Smart Car driver. They pulled over a city bus, and looked on the front bumper - where the Smart Car was perched, with the driver inside, clutching his cell phone. The bus driver said he had noticed a slight bump when he pulled onto the expressway, but hadn't seen the little guy at all, and must have driven with him stuck on the bumper for many kilometers. If only Ford would build an SUV with a proper hybrid engine, so we could have our guilt-free SUV! The American Dream is not sitting on a city bus, nor crammed in a tiny, tinny car. The greatest form of mass transit is the car - gets you from where you are to where you want to be when you want to go.
Hunched in our Taurus, we pulled over for a bite to eat, while the traffic dissipated. We then noticed another facet of the Middle American experience. We have learned to talk of Blue States and Red States, but it is better to think of Red America as surrounding the Blue cities. I first noticed this growing up in Oregon. A short way outside of town, everyone began to talk in a slow Southern drawl. "Took ma dawg down to the crick, tree'd a 'coon, ..." Maybe in the West it is the influence of the Okies migrating from Oklahoma during the '30s dust bowl to better farming lands; but I notice it in most places, except in the industrial North. And got a whiff of it in Rehoboth Beach as well. Reminds me of the observation of Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, that airline pilots all seem to imitate the slow drawl of the first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager - the very model of the Right Stuff. You know the type:
Well, folks, sorry about that little wind sheer - not often you drop three thousand feet in four seconds! Why, better than an E ride at Disneyland! Don't be too worried about those masks that dropped down - just put them on and you'll feel better. We may have lost the right engine, but shucks, I had it worse in 'Nam and always brought my bird home. Settle back, enjoy the flight - we should be landing shortly. Very shortly ...
How America Plays. Rehoboth Beach has a mile long boardwalk. At night it comes to life, with bumper cars, merry-go-rounds, miniature golf, soft ice cream, funnel cakes, and salt water taffy. During the day it makes for fine jogging - the wood has lots of give, and the boardwalk is a mile long, so you can pace your run. Only hazard is to jog past a sunbather drenched in suntan lotion and get momentarily asphyxiated.
The beaches are long and sandy - very nice. Unfortunately a jellyfish infestation made swimming too itchy, so people stayed out of the water and baked. Most meandered around the boardwalk, eating pizza or slurping energy drinks, which turn out to have an incredible cocktail of calories.
Our group had several walkers, some joggers, bike riders - a fairly active bunch. In the evening we would walk or *drive* the short distance to the beach and play twilight football in the sand, or volleyball, or just cruise the boardwalk. One day we went crabbing at a local inland salt marsh. Another time the kids went to a local water world slide park. Some of us considered fishing offshore but were a bit deterred by the weather.
For someone who lives in Mediterranean climate, the East Coast can feel a bit tropical. OK, those of you who enjoy Houston in summer would laugh, but this week the air was a bit heavy and sodden. So we vegged out, and went to several summer movies, smothered in air conditioning.
How America Shops. The drive to the beach is lined with Middle American shopping - five different outlet malls, a Wal-Mart and a KMart. At one point we journeyed down to the nearby gay beach to see if we would find a slightly more upscale Target, but that beach has yet to be gentrified, so we quickly hustled back to our outlet store heaven.
Outlet stores have a style all their own. Bargains abound, but much of the merchandise is not marked down, simply last year's failed fashion. One has to pick and choose a bit to find the deals. We found a bunch.
After my girls brought me along for hours-long clothes shopping sprees five days in a row, I escaped into a Black & Decker outlet store. I bought a few tools I really didn't need, but felt better for it.
How America Eats. Food was a bit of an experience as well. Middle America eats at chain restaurants, like Applebee's and Ruby Tuesdays, a step up from fast food. We chanced a Ruby Tuesdays, and sat down to look at the salads. Three of the six came with fries. I am not making this up. We politely left. Rehoboth Beach has what seem to be nice seafood places, but out on the strip with outlet stores, the choices are mostly chains.
We spent each evening with my wife's extended family, comprised of many families ranging in age from 8 to 80. Each night, a different family would plan and cook dinner for 28 people, and we would sit down to chat before heading off to twilight beach football or volleyball. One night got us into a discussion of food and obesity.
Processed food may be the next Tobacco. Already the Forces of Righteousness are forming. Sugar may be a toxin - a recent study says too much of it is embedded in processed foods, overwhelming our normal hunger mechanism (sugar in, insulin out, other hormones suppress appetite). The book The Omnivore's Dilemma instead sees the problem as the corn processing industry. (Check out the video interview that comes with the book on the Amazon site.) High fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar in many soft drinks and processed foods. It arose in the '70s when we put tariffs on imported sugar. (That sure made friends for us among the Caribbean nations). We impose tariffs on imported sugar, but do not on imported oil. Sugar is cheaper than HFCS, and tastes better; but after tariffs, HFCS is cheaper. The Food Police thinks HFCS causes obesity, as it has a higher fructose blend than sugar, and fructose does not cause the normal appetite suppression hunger mechanism as well as sucrose.
HFCS can also be blamed for the New Coke fiasco. Any cola tastes better with sugar than HFCS. Go buy kosher Coke, or Mexican Coke, and you'll see. Coke switched in 1979 to save cost, but Pepsi didn't switch until 1984, and in the interim John Scully (yes, that John Scully) launched the Pepsi Taste Test. Pepsi clobbered Coke in blind taste tests. Coke panicked, and New Coke was their response to the Pepsi Taste Test - a pretty good HFCS cola formula. Coke drinkers wanted the less sweet old formula, and six months after launch New Coke was pulled for Coke Classic. By then Pepsi had switched to HFCS and the battle no longer had to be waged.
An even broader attack on American Diet came from the low-carb diet fads of ten years ago, which blamed refined flour as well as sugar for causing obesity. White bread is quickly digested into glucose, just like sugar - a slice of Wonder Bread is like swallowing a handful of refined sugar.
And so it goes - trans-fatty acids (TFAs) are the latest food type to be blamed. Others will follow.
The food industry is also blamed for the homogenization of taste. Many tomatoes are picked before they are ripe, sprayed to make them look a tasty red, and sold as ripe in US supermarkets. They ship better this way - but they taste flat. If you ever have a ripe, real tomato, you will taste the difference immediately. Beef in the US is corn fed, which causes consistent taste, but if you ever have grass-fed beef, you can tell the difference - tastier. Corn-fed cattle get pumped with antibiotics and growth hormone to counter the effect of excessive sugar from corn - sugar is a toxin to cows as well as people. If MacDonald's were to shift to grass-fed beef, overnight the taste and healthiness of beef products would skyrocket. Some farms in Oregon are growing natural pork from pigs that live in a yard and not a pen. You can taste the difference. Natural pork is no longer the other white meat, i.e. as bland as chicken. True range-free chicken also doesn't taste like chicken - it has a richness that has been lost in the homogenization of food. Most so-called free-range chicken is not. A SF venture capitalist has invested in free-range fish farms - large swaths in the open ocean to grow and harvest large fish like tuna. Apparently the taste is remarkable. More and more fish is farm raised, and bland tasting, if not somewhat diseased.
In our evening discussion of food, a group pounced on one of the brothers, who is a top salesman at one of the largest food processing companies. Waves of argument crashed over him, and he calmly fielded the questions and concerns. His core rebuttal was that the food industry serves its customers, and they want cheap healthy food, not premium priced, Blue America, tree-hugging organic food. Now he realized this was too facile, that his industry has a responsibility that goes beyond selling people what they want to buy, health be damned. His firm has removed TFAs from ice cream, and is researching how to make healthier food more cheaply. They have a chance to pursue a breakout strategy of capturing the hill of the-most-healthy-brands. Currently they see this opportunity and are working towards it, but have not made the break from the cheap, volume business.
The consumer is buying less from the center of the store and more from the edges, meaning a great trend is moving through Middle America to pay more mind to produce, bakery, deli and other fresher foods, and less to the packaged foods and (heaven forbid) the frozen food section. The Food Police will dive into this market at about the same time as tastes and attitudes are shifting anyway, and probably succeed in shifting the food of Middle America.
But we'll still want fries with our greens.
We left Rehoboth after an enjoyable week, made more so by the company. On the drive back we skipped the Rehoboth Beach breakfast places to avoid the coming traffic crush, and then drove quite a ways without seeing any eateries. Getting a bit hungry, we gave in to the first MacDonald's we saw. Continuing on, we all had a bit of a tummy ache. Maybe we ate too fast. Or maybe the food is too processed, too cheaply made, with too many TFAs, HFCS, and other inventions of the food processing industry. We passed an outlet store, and felt tempted to stop and shop one more time. Soon we reached DC, and disappeared back into our normal life.