The state sport of Maryland is, naturally, jousting, but many have argued that the state should instead celebrate duckpin bowling. Duckpin bowling (and its New England cousin, candlestick bowling) stemmed from bowling alley owners’ efforts to differentiate themselves from alleys offering "big pin" bowling. Professional bowling and bowling leagues are less popular than in their heyday, but duckpin and candlestick bowling are almost entirely moribund, having fallen back from national semi-prominence to a flickering presence in their home regions. The Liverpudlian accent, scouse, was made famous by the Beatles. But it’s dying (link found on Rebecca’s Pocket), a victim of either cleaner air or the increased familiarity, via television, of Cockney accents. The diner, the once-ubiquitous American lunchery, has largely died, done in by the one-two punch of car culture and the rise of burger chains. Increasingly, languages spoken by indigenous peoples are threatened by the rise a few mega-languages — Spanish, English, Mandarin, a handful of others. (The link is again from Rebecca.)

Are these symptoms — the rise of dominant cultures in matters small and large — necessarily a bad thing? Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that a nation’s wealth is determined in part by how quickly regional variations are replaced by a oligarchic marketplace where a few competitors can gain economies of scale:

It turns out that the German beer industry suffers from small-scale production. There are 1,000 little local beer companies in Germany, shielded from competition with each other because each German brewery has virtually a local monopoly, and shielded from competition with imports. The United States has 67 major beer breweries, producing 23 billion liters of beer per year. Germany has 1,000 major beer breweries, producing only half as much beer per year as the United States. That’s to say that the average brewery in the U.S. produces 31 times more beer than the average brewery in Germany.

That fact results from German local tastes and German government policies. German beer drinkers are fiercely loyal to their local brand of beer. And so there is no national brand of beer in Germany, analogous to Budweiser or Miller or Coors in the United States. Instead, most German beer is consumed within 30 miles of the place where it is brewed. And any of you who have been in Germany know that Germans love their local beer and loathe the beer that comes from next door. The result is that the German beer industry cannot profit from economies of scale. In the beer industry, as in other industries, production costs decrease greatly with size. The bigger the refrigerator unit for making the beer, and the longer the bottle-filling line, the cheaper is the cost of brewing beer. So these tiny German beer industries are relatively inefficient. There’s no competition; there are just 1,000 local monopolies.

But I bet those German beers are better than a bottle of Schlitz or Miller Lite, I tell you what. Any one of the dozens of artisan bread recipies in this book will be better than Wonder Bread; if you don’t happen to live near a great artisan bakery like Acme or LaBrea, you can make your own. Small artisan cheeses, perhaps some imported habenero salsa, triple-distilled vodka — yum!

Of course, these things cost money (and if they don’t cost money, they cost time, possibly even more valuable). The word "artisan" means "craftsman" — handmade, not mass-produced. The difference in labor costs is one of the four major difference between a raw-milk Gruyere and a block of Kraft mild cheddar or between a Lotus and a Ford. The others, of course, are quality, price, and status.

Perhaps that’s what it comes down to — where once, differences in taste were matters of regional (if you were from Georgia, you drank Coke; if you were from Texas, you drank Dr Pepper) or cultural (I’ve been told that Murphy’s is a "Protestant beer") variations, now they serve more universally as class signifiers. There’s a significant snob appeal to anything fancy, hand-crafted, and expensive, but it often is significantly better. The Slow Food movement’s claim to be "a movement for the protection of the right to taste" has the hint of a double entendre — it sounds like an indictment of bourgeois Americans and their gaucherie, doesn’t it? But the meals they promote certainly sound more appealing than what I could pick up at a Jack in the Box. It’s a complex topic, made more so by the obfuscation that generally thrown up around matters of class in America. I’ll think about it more as I go make a drink — Gilbey’s vodka, sold by the quart in plastic jugs, and Cascade Farms organic peach-mango-orange juice.