I found frog legs under a sneeze shield in a suburb of Pittsburgh. No, wait. It was near Yorktown, Va. Or maybe it was closer to home in Maryland - like Bel Air or Edgewood, in Harford County. No, wait. Maybe it was during that stop north of Providence - Smithfield, R.I., or Attleboro, Mass.
Pardon me while I have a moment of madness.
I am trying to remember where I found frog legs in a buffet.
I have been traveling a lot lately, and not in cities - in vast suburban areas packed with shopping centers, shopping malls, gas stations and car dealerships, chain restaurants and chain stores. My eyes have glazed over. My brain is fried. I've put a lot of miles on the minivan in the past couple of months, and the miles all look the same to me. I feel I have been everywhere and nowhere.
But it wasn't all a bore. There were frog legs.
The problem is, I can't remember where. It wasn't at Denny's. It wasn't at Bennigan's.
I got it.
I had frog legs - actually just one frog leg, and then only the thigh - at a Chinese buffet in a shopping center outside Richmond, Va. It was called Golden Dragon or Golden House, or Lucky Dragon, or Lucky Golden Drag Queen, I can't remember exactly. They served frog legs.
I considered this remarkable - perhaps an attempt by a maverick chef to add something unusual (and French) to his Asian-American offerings. Or perhaps it was just a mistake.
Let's face it, most Chinese buffets in most suburban shopping malls look the same and offer the same faux-Hunan fare. In fact, the longer I live on this planet, the more convinced I become that, in a deep underground facility somewhere in the Northeast corridor - say, Passaic, N.J. - there are hundreds of Asian men and women at work constantly, producing giant vats of sweet-and-sour shrimp, General Tso's chicken and pork fried rice. The food travels at high speed through an elaborate system of underground pipes to Chinese buffets from Jacksonville, Fla. to Lewiston, Maine, and everyone everywhere eats the same thing. Those guys cooking lo mein behind the counter at your local carryout? That's just for show.
You think I'm kidding?
This has been going on in the pizza industry for years.
I'm certain that we all eat pizza made with the same sauce, and that it comes out of those tanks you see from the interstate near Newark. N.J.
You think I'm crazy?
There are four reasons for the rapid expansion of the interstate highways since the Eisenhower administration - to open up suburban spaces for development, to boost the U.S. automobile industry, to provide high-speed travel for our military to defend the nation against foreign attack, and to provide a secret, subterranean pipe system to ensure that all Americans eat the same basic pizza. The pipes were installed at night back in the 1960s, and it was a favor granted by the Kennedy administration to the Mafia.
You think I'm a meshugeneh?
But mark my words, one of these days you'll see what I'm talking about - hundreds of miles of pipes carrying the same pizza sauce up and down the coast from a centralized kitchen that's probably manned by illegal immigrants.
Oh, sure, there are quaint little places that claim they make pizza with a sauce from a family recipe (Matthew's of Highlandtown, for instance).
But such places are the exception now.
The rule of the day is everything, everywhere, the same. I believe that has become the dominant aesthetic in America - mass consumerism, homog- enized and repeated endlessly, from sea to shining sea. The vision of the familiar has always been comforting, and once upon a time the familiar was a corner cafe, or diner, or hardware store, the great good places that provided products, service and a sense of community. Now the familiar is a strip mall anchored by retail stores we all know from mass-market advertising. What the chain restaurants sell - the same meal in Pennsylvania as in New Hampshire - is now fully ingrained as American comfort food.
I realize this movement - the homogenization of the provinces - has been the trend for a couple of decades now, but I guess these recent travels confirmed it as cultural reality, and a dominant one.
I was in the Pittsburgh area over the holiday weekend. We never actually saw Pittsburgh. What we saw was mile after mile of shopping centers, followed by mile after mile of shopping centers, each with all the familiar chains. I could not find a nonchain restaurant or quirky, local retail establishment in miles of driving.
I found the same thing in the Yorktown area two weeks ago, and on some road north of Providence in October. The only thing that stood out from any of these trips was the frog leg I ate - and then only the thigh - at Golden Lucky Drag Strip, or whatever it was called, in suburban Richmond, or wherever we were.
Find Dan Rodricks' column archive and blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks