Terry Marasco: The decline of rural America – cup by cup

Urban Americans crave the comfort of country home-cooked meals.

I owned a restaurant and motel in rural Nevada. One day a customer came in for our “great coffee.” He was just passing through and came 6 miles off course just to stop in for cup.

For a month I traveled, on my motorcycle, rural America from Montana to Key West, Florida, across the Southwest and back to Montana, and only found good coffee at Starbucks in larger urban areas. Rural America has given up on good coffee but also, more disappointingly, on home-cooked food. In one rural Florida town I asked for the best fried chicken and a local pointed me to the gas station convenience store. Such stores are replacing family restaurants all over.

Gas station convenience stores have filled the vacuum left by foundering family restaurants. Some even have fresh salad and fruit bars. But most have endless brown food and aisles and aisles of salty and greasy snacks and overly sugared candies. Restaurant chains like Subway have also butted in.

For me that is one, albeit minor, reason rural America is in decline.

There are major reasons.

The major first decline was the build out of the interstates. In town after town I visited chain motels and restaurants peppered the interstate exits while the in-town businesses had mostly died off. Agricultural decline followed.

From the New York Times, Jan. 25, 2014): “As suburbs around the West have crept farther out onto the plains and the cost of raising cattle has risen, the number of cattle has dwindled to the lowest level since 1952 … Years of drought have also left pastureland harder to come by, ranchers say.”

The swallowing up of farms by large agribusiness has also depreciated the population as new generations moved away.

Rural America continues to lose population. From the 2012 census: A record number of U.S. counties — more than 1 in 3 — are shrinking, hit by an aging population and weakened local economies that are spurring young adults to seek jobs and build families elsewhere. At the same time, foreign born residents are increasing. The census states that in 1,135 counties deaths exceeded births.

But Americans love rural America. We seek its solace, its friendly folk, its homemade food.

In his 1995 book, “Born in the Country: A History of Rural America,” historian David Danbom points out that “America’s reverence for rural life developed slowly and changed substantially over time …The new Nation’s rural areas, populated largely by independent, land-owning farmers, stood in contrast to Britain’s stratified society and provided a strong foundation for the development of America’s democratic institutions. As the Nation became increasingly urban, rural America’s cultural stock continued to climb precisely because it was not urban.”

Where is rural America’s salvation? In part, cup by cup, in its restaurants’ kitchens.

I opened my restaurant in rural Nevada in a town of 52. Having moved there from San Francisco, I brought my food and beverage sensibilities with me. Those sensibilities are not necessarily West Coast gourmet, but they are high-quality, freshly ground coffee beans from a San Francisco company, high-quality ingredients and meats and cheeses. American processed cheese was not on the menu. And everything was freshly cooked and baked. We sold 40 micro beers, which one rarely finds in rural America, though they are widely available to rural bars and restaurants. No excuses for not serving interesting high-quality food beverages. Any rural community can do the same.

Often what was listed as “homemade” in rural restaurants was a pie from Schwann’s or Sysco, muffins from Costco. That has to change.

Rural America has large opportunities. Communities in farm country can grow fruit and vegetable cash crops for local customers, restaurants and grocery stores. The buy-local, eat-local movement is now beyond quaint. If a landowner does not care to grow, it can be leased to someone providing income for both.

Urbanites crave home country cooking and the rural ambiance, which provides a respite from hectic urban environments. Many are living on convenience foods, easy for hectic lifestyles.

Urbanites want to escape – to the country. The rural keywords: really home-cooked, great coffee, incredible baked goods, locally grown, local arts and crafts is the opportunity.

Terry Marasco, Salt Lake City, is a former restaurant, bar and motel owner and manager.