February 23, 2012

Do you like this?

Since i was a kid my favorite “vegetable” has always been the crispy goodness of deep fried potatoes. In fact, French fries must be everyone’s favorite since they’ve remained the sidecar of burgers, hot dogs, chicken chunks and every other kind of fast food entrée since Ronald first lit up the golden arches back in the 1950s.

“You want fries with that?” has been the go-to up-sell suggestion since the dawn of drive-thru windows. Who wouldn’t want the tasty treat of crispy golden potato sticks to go with their juicy hot meat stuffs? Nobody. So the top brass at one of the major quick-service players decided it was time to save customers the trouble of choice (and a few cents) by getting them to spend two more dollars on a pre-packaged “value meal” that automatically included fries and a drink with their entrée.

The advent of the value meal—most likely the cousin of McDonald’s kid-friendly “Happy Meal”—changed fast food forever. It increased average sales to upwards of four or five bucks and offered hungry hamburglers the convenience of ordering an entire meal with a single number. However, ways of further increasing profit margins on these cash-flow combos over the years has resulted in lackluster “enhancements” in our nation’s favorite starch.

Despite our limited knowledge of the rest of the world, we Americans know where French fries were invented. France, right? Wrong. The origins of fries date back to 1700s Belgium. But when they were first served to Thomas Jefferson at the White House in 1802, the strips of raw potato were dropped into boiling oil by a French chef, so there. Of course, in France, fries are referred to as “pommes frites.” Go figure.

Our disgust with France for not wanting to help us bomb the hell out of Iraq in 2003 caused congressional action to replace the “French” prefix of fries and toast options in cafeterias at the capitol with the rebel-rousing, “we’ll show them” prefix of “Freedom.” That decree was later reversed when fast food lobbyists convinced renegade  congresspeople that the cost of carrying out this change across America would amount to billions and confuse an already slow-witted customer base.

Up until the year of my birth, 1967, French fries enjoyed at fast food establishments were cut fresh from actual potatoes at the restaurant level by the same type of pimply-faced teenager who now just cuts open a bag of frozen potatoes and dumps them into the fryer. You can thank Ray Kroc for that one.

McDonald’s and its competitors spent the 1970s and ’80s one-upping each other with ongoing improvements in taste, texture and quality in order to claim the elusive “world’s best fries” label. I remember as a teenager, and even as a kid, carefully choosing fast food cuisine options based on which outlet was currently serving what my friends and I considered to be the finest pommes frites.

But much like the music industry, French fry test kitchens seemed to lose their way in the ’90s. Seasoning salts, new coatings, curly configurations and other flash-in-the-pan enhancements further threatened to detract from their undeniable appeal. In fact, I became much more picky and would even forego “fries with that” at establishments peddling lackluster sliced spuds.

My brother switched almost exclusively to tater tots. I can’t say that I blame him. Tots possess an indescribable taste and texture, but I’ll try to explain. As one’s teeth tenderly clamp down on a tot’s golden outer shell a slight crunch enables the palette to enjoy the gently flash-fried potato meat inside. My brother’s newfound enthusiasm for tots not only made them a staple for him and his young daughter, but also inspired him to leave a spontaneous five-minute message on Ore-Ida’s corporate headquarters’ answering machine during their 40th anniversary celebration. His passionate plea earned him a 40-month supply.

Me, I took myself off the grid. I curtailed my penchant for the siren song of the value meal and began ordering entrée’s and sodas separately from their virtually cost-free French fry companion. It was my way of protesting what had happened to my beloved fries (and a good way to shed some unwanted pounds likely caused by them in the first place).

Even today, I limit my French fry intake to the meaty-rich taste of my all-time favorite variety—the crinkle cut. But finding these treats means purchasing meals from the slim network of mom-and-pop greasy spoons with the fortitude to honor their superior succulence. Thank you Nick Bowers, and old-school establishments like the Pickle Barrel, for keeping it real with the only “real” French fry out there.

Chuck Crowder is a local writer and general man about town. His opinions are just that. Everything expressed is loosely based on fact and crap he hears people talking about. Take what you read with a grain of salt, but let it pepper your thoughts.


February 23, 2012

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