“In my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.”
In one small town, we stopped at a butcher shop to buy some steaks for the campfire. The walls were lined with a range of Italian goods, from tinned tomatoes to panettone, and the refrigerators were stocked with homemade fresh pasta in resealable sandwich bags.
We were greeted by a tiny man behind a huge meat counter.
“Hey, how ya doin?”
We smiled at his expansive personality.
“What can I do for ya?”
We asked for two of his best steaks.
“Great choice. Everybody needs a good steak. What are ya gonna do with ’em?”
“Cook ’em over a campfire.”
He nodded enthusiastically. “Best way to do it. I’ll give you sirloin. It’ll be best for an open flame. Not too thick. Cook more evenly. Inside’ll be done before the outside’s burnt.”
We asked where his meat came from, if it was local.
“Of course,” he squinted at us. “It’s my shop. I buy the meat. Buy it from a friend of mine down the road. Grass-fed cattle.”
We asked how long he’d been running the shop. He had come to small-town America from Italy 48 years ago, and he’d been running the same store in the same location for 40 years. He showed us an old photo. He still has the same haircut, although his hair is white now, and he still makes his own sausage with a hand-crank grinder.
“We passed a huge supermarket just a few blocks from here. Does that kind of place hurt your business?”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s a different thing. They don’t do what I do.”
“They don’t sell meat?” We were confused.
“Nah, nah, I mean it’s not the same thing.”
The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.
“Its about respect,” he told us. “You have to respect the customer. People don’t come back because the shop is pretty, even though it is; they don’t come back for the opera I play all day long, though lots of ’em comment on it; they come back because they like me and I like them. They come back because we have a relationship, and that starts with respect. That’s what’s missing in those giant wholesale discount places. Respect.”
In retrospect, that respect was absent from many of our interactions as well, even in the smaller towns. We reflected on one particularly warm afternoon, when we had passed a string of wineries along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Since we’d never tried New Mexican wine, we decided to stop. After a quick wander, the very friendly woman behind the counter showed us their tasting menu. Prices were listed by the bottle or by the glass. We decided to taste several wines.
“It’s three dollars for six tastes,” she explained, “but you can share the tastes if you want and just pay for one. And if you buy a bottle you don’t have to pay at all!”
This sounded like a good deal to us. We participated enthusiastically as we talked to her about our travels, about the reasons for the trip, about the curiosity that enticed us to pull off the dirty two-lane road into her gravel parking lot instead of making tracks for Santa Fe.
“Sounds like you’ve had quite a trip already,” she told us.
We chatted for a while, but after our six tastes of six underwhelming wines, we decided we weren’t interested in a bottle.
“Thanks, but I think we’ll pass this time.”
Her smile disappeared as she pursed her lips. “Oh. Okay.” She whisked away our glasses and stabbed at the cash register. “That’ll be six dollars. Plus tax.” So much for respect.
In this consumer’s world of competition and commoditization, difference becomes a disadvantage. Stores focus more on merchandise and less on building relationships with customers. At the winery, the personal connection was nothing more than a sales tactic; the sale, rather than the long-term connection, has become the most important thing. This in turn drives standardization of products because no one can afford to be different. Hotel rooms, coffee shops, banks, are all standardized to the point of absurdity. There is certainly a sense of comfort in the sameness, the familiar sign that entices you to pull off the road, the familiar furniture inside, the familiar uniforms and colors and smells and tastes. But when you stop to think about it, the point of travel is to experience difference, and if everything becomes standardized, then the experience of travel, even the point of travel, is diluted.
Steinbeck noticed this in its early stages, with the standardization of language through mass consumption of TV and radio. Even our food has fallen victim to this tendency. “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” (82) He lamented this loss of regional accents and the homogenization of language. He also experienced the loss of regional foods and the standardization of cuisine brought about by the highway culture of fast, cheap hamburgers, the same in California as they are in New Jersey, all untouched by human hands. At the same time, he also acknowledged that the days before this standardization left something to be desired, despite the attraction of nostalgia. Mom’s home cooking was not always tasty or healthy, and the bygone days of fresh, unpasteurized milk were also days of illness and early death from unknown diseases. It is in our nature to protest change, even if it’s change for the better, but Steinbeck also argued that trying to hold it back would only result in bitterness, because it is a battle that can’t be won.
Even so, we hope the kind of respect we encountered at the butcher’s shop prevails.