For a variety of reasons – some political, some economic, some relating to the slow but catastrophic degeneration of the "Survivor" TV franchise – it's hard not to feel as though American culture is hitting the skids.
Some of the most in-your-face signs of the apocalypse now appear at our local eateries.
Exhibit No. 1: Hardee's 1420-calorie Monster Thickburger. Exhibit No. 2: the new, horrifying line of appetizers at TGI Friday's – a group of items that includes Fried Mac and Cheese, and the new Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido, which is essentially a molten, crustless pizza eaten with breadsticks. Exhibit No. 3: Coca-Cola Blak, the blasphemous coffee/cola combination that gives battery acid a run for its money in terms of flavor and subtlety.
But beyond what we eat, there's how we eat. The latest bump in this story line was delivered this fall by writer Patrik Jonsson. Reporting in this publication about the increasing affordability and popularity of eating out in restaurants, he unearthed a fact that should send a chill down the spine of any of us who still believe that being American has something to do with knowing your neighbors and your family members:
"[National Restaurant Association] surveys show that diners increasingly view restaurants as extensions of their own homes, and a large percent would like to see table-top TVs installed at their favorite eating joint."
For a variety of reasons, this is about as scary as survey results can get. In a single sentence, Mr. Jonsson implies that not only are Americans comfortable with the intrusion of mass media into their dining areas, we're looking for innovative ways to make it more even more intrusive.
Now, there's no denying that there's a place in our culture for fast or mass-produced food, and for the opportunity to watch college football while eating spicy chicken wings – or, in my case, to savor a classic Lennie Briscoe episode of "Law & Order" while hoovering up a basket of home fries.
There's something primally comforting about the steady drone of the television when you're traveling cross-country and trying to relax in an airport lounge or when you're killing four hours at a marginal motel while on a cross-country road trip.
But it's the last thing I would want when dining out with family or friends. Eating out and cooking at home are the closest things I have to a normal hobby. (Journalism and politics don't qualify – take my word for it.)
I've found that the beauty of spending a lot of time around food isn't merely that food can be delicious. It's that food is a way to make connections.
Food is part of the vocabulary that makes a place special. How can you begin to understand an area's culture if you haven't sampled its cuisine? If you attend a fish boil in northeastern Wisconsin, you've taken a baby step toward understanding the local culture. If you're eating at Hardee's, you've missed the point of traveling.
Done right – the right place, the right food, the right people – dining out can be as warm and meaningful as enjoying Thanksgiving at Grandma's house.
And that sort of connection, that kind of closeness, is exactly what table-top TVs will ruin. If you thought it was slightly more difficult to have a deep conversation while CNN reported the latest development in the Anna Nicole Smith story across the restaurant, try maintaining that same level of intimacy 12 inches from the screen.
There's no doubt that "table-top TV" sounds pretty cool, but so does "space-based antimissile system." I hope the wisdom of the country's restaurateurs can be depended upon to spare us a new era of social isolation and mass-media dependency.
That, and whatever the next terrifying step beyond "crustless pizza" might happen to be.
• James Norton blogs about food writing for www.chow.com .