Monday, March 21, 2011

The Definition of Pandering or Where the 1950s Truly Comes Alive!

Late last week my wife, her grandmother, my infant daughter and I met for lunch at Johnny Rockets in the mall. If you’ve never heard of Johnny Rockets, it’s an overpriced restaurant chain located in most malls that are decorated to look like a 1950’s style hamburger joint. Basically, you’re paying 25% extra for the ambiance.

Or at least it’s supposed to be ambiance. Johnny Rockets is decorated to look like what someone else thinks that a 1950’s hamburger joint looks like. All of the waiters and waitresses wear pristine, almost blinding white uniforms, there is a lot of polished chrome in the restaurant and at each of the booths there is a non-working mini jukebox packed with the hits of the 50s and 60s. The eatery’s draw is that this is supposed to be a time machine that will take you (even minorities!) back to a simpler time where the nation “rocked ‘round the clock”, had a best friend named Potsie and ate hamburgers until their sinuses were impacted with meat.

The pandering doesn’t come from the retrieval of false memories or even the fact that Johnny Rockets’ unspoken promise of taking you back to a simpler time still includes modern inflation – seriously $2.29 for a Coke plus extra thirty-nine cents for a shot of vanilla? They had names for people like this in the 1950s: Pinkos.

No, the pandering comes when you peruse the menu. They have the normal fare that you’d find in any number of chain restaurants or diners: hamburgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, $2.29 Cokes. But there was something in the menu that caught my eye, it was listed right there on the second page above the onion rings: American fries.

American fries? AMERICAN fries?

Someone is still waging that battle against the French? I couldn’t believe it, it had been so long since I heard the word Freedom fries that I thought that this was a goof. I assumed that American fries were the same as french brothers except there was probably a ton more cheese and chili plopped on it and it was adorned with mini-American flags and sparklers. Essentially, the July 4th of fried potatoes.

Thinking that this was a joke, I ecclesiastically ordered these American fries and waited for the inevitable spud spectacular that was obviously heading my way. Would they bring out a brass band? Nah, that was too expensive. But I’m sure there would be a radio blasting the “1812 Overture” while sparkler illuminated my dish and mini-American flags crisply waved in a breeze of grease and salt. But it wasn’t too be, I got a dish of plain old, normal French fries and a little paper bowl to put my ketchup in.*

So disappointing. So blase. So unAmerican.

* At Johnny Rockets the server usually cheerfully dumps the ketchup in the paper bowl for you, so you don’t have to messy your delicate hands. I guess this was how it was done everywhere in the 1950s. But for some reason our waitress didn’t do that last Thursday, which is the way that it’s done everywhere in the 2010s. Sherman, alert Mr. Peabody, our time machine restaurant is busted.

In any event, this new naming technique got me thinking about the whole French fry foofaraw of a few years ago. In 2003 when the United State boldly invaded Iraq looking for WebMDs—or was it WMDs, I forget—the French government loudly protested this move. Americans, being Americans, didn’t take too kindly to anyone—especially the fucking French—telling us what to do, so a movement began to strike back at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Would bombing the Eiffel Tower do the trick? No. How about a gigantic tariff on cigarettes and berets? No. The only way we could strike back was to do something that a Frenchman would do be extremely passive aggressive and petty. The collective American mind worked together and came up with a plan to call french fries, Freedom Fries.

Eat that, Paris!

According to the always reliable Wikipedia: “On March 11, 2003 Representatives Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-North Carolina) declared that all references to French fries and French toast on the menus of the restaurants and snack bars run by the House of Representatives would be removed. House cafeterias were ordered to rename French fries "freedom fries". This action was carried out without a congressional vote, under the authority of Ney's position as Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees restaurant operations for the chamber. The simultaneous renaming of French toast to "freedom toast" attracted less attention.”*

* I don’t give a shit about French toast because I think it tastes like rat steak, but if you were a French toast fan, wouldn’t you be pissed that your favorite food got the short end of the stick? I mean, it’s already in the breakfast ghetto, way behind in popularity to the superior pancake and the versatile egg. This was the opportune time for the French toast to take the national spotlight and it failed miserably.

The French embassy didn’t comment on the action, but did say (in I’m sure the nicest way possible) that French fries weren’t originally from France, they were from Belgium. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was probably the first person to identify fried potatoes as being cooked in the “French style”. “Irregardless,” screamed the American public and the name Freedom fries stuck like a fine polymar.

Until a little over two years later. When, again according to Wikipedia, “In May 2005, Representative Jones, having arrived at the belief that the United States went to war "with no justification", said of the "freedom fries" episode: "I wish it had never happened." By July 2006, the House had quietly changed the name of the two foods in all of its restaurants back to "French fries" and "French toast".”

So while the whole country was really, really, REALLY angered by the French*, they eventually realized that this whole thing was a bit silly and the French returned to the fry and everything was cool again.**

* That Wikipedia article on Freedom fries said that the makers of French’s mustard were so freaked out as being seen as anti-patriot that they wrote up a press release assuring people that they were NOT a French company and that the mustard’s name was derived from a family name. The best part is that they used the release to assure America that they were patriotic as hell.

I’m not sure if the company’s CEO took a public patriotic test, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.

** This isn’t the first time that America changed names of foodstuffs. During World Wars I and II as hamburgers were called “Liberty Steaks”, sauerkraut was called “Victory Cabbage” and frankfurters were called “Hot Dogs”. I can totally see the need for changing the name of French fries because all Germany did was genocide about bunch of people. France had the balls to call us out on a unjustified war. It’s really the same thing if you think about it.

Which brings us back to Johnny Rockets. I would guess that the reason why they didn’t use the Freedom fries moniker is because another restauranteur, Neal Rowand of North Carolina (of course), has copyrighted the word “Freedom fries” and they’d probably have to pay a couple of bucks to use it*. Patriotism isn’t free, asshole and there’s always a dollar to be made during war.

* You know who doesn’t mind spending a few bucks to offer Freedom fries at his red, white and blue restaurant? The most patriotic sumabitch who ever lived, Mr. Toby Keith. He owns the “I Love This Bar & Grill” chain of bars and grills and you can be damned sure that you won’t find any FRENCH fries anywhere.

Presumably Johnny Rockets went with the cheaper and more generic “American fries” for their menu to prove to everyone who stuffs himself into one of their booths that they are the most patriotic restaurant ever! I mean, it’s obvious right? It’s right there on their menu, see? No, Senator McCarthy, I do not consort with communists, Muslim sympathizers or the French. No. I am most assuredly NOT unAmerican! Ronald McDonald is damn liar! This is an outrage!

It seems to me that Johnny Rockets encapsulates the 1950s perfectly.

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