Monday, April 25, 2011

"Do You Want Fries With That?"

You know, I really don't. I just think I do.

Out of habit, I say yes. Most places, I don't even know what those fries will be like, and most places it doesn't even matter, since they all get the same frozen fries from the same supplier. And 45 minutes later I am bloated with fries.

I am not alone.

Although the numbers vary a bit from study to study, the most repeated statistic that I came across in a recent Google search is that Americans eat an average of 29 pounds of french fries each year. And yes, if you break that down scientifically, that is nearly 2 1/2 pounds every month, or, to put it even more poignantly, that is the equivalent of you only stealing a couple of fries off of your friend's plate every single day of the year. Even if you just snitch and scam, you still pick up the pommes poundage.

Twenty-nine pounds sounds like a lot to me. Maybe that's because I spent the last three days carrying heavy boxes and furniture up and down the stairs in my house. And that's just the average. To get that number, you have to include non-fry eaters like nursing babies, celebrities on Dancing With The Stars, and the Maltose-intolerant.

But there's more to it than just pounds. You see, french fries, even as ubiquitous as they are, contain a mystery that most other everyday foods do not.

I learned this 45 years ago when my mother took us to our very first Hot Shoppes, Jr., the new fast-food joint in Cherry Hill when I was growing up. A little burger, a small sleeve of fries, an Orange Freeze served on a tray, all as if they had landed from another planet. The burger so different from the behemoth your dad cooked on the grill, the freeze just like those Slushies your parents wouldn't let you buy at the 7-11, and most of all, those fries, pale and salty and all the same size.

Because you can get fries in almost any restaurant in the country, but you aren't going to get them at home! That's the mystery--any crappy dump can fry up a pile of tater sticks for you, but you never eat them in the privacy of your house. Not unless you count those Ore-Ida ones you bake in the oven. I don't. Not unless you count the rare, rare, rare occasion that your parents (or you, now that you are a parent) attempt to make fries with mixed success. I don't. I mean that on any kind of regular basis, you can't get a french fry in your house. And, more likely, not a decent one. That is part of their secret allure.

And if you know someone who knows how to make them regularly and successfully (I do), that man (yeah, it'll be a man) is like a god, like a CIA-trained chef. His will be uniform in size, cooked once at a lower heat, then allowed to rest, and, finally, cooked again to get that perfect crispness and soft interior. Served in big, napkin-lined baskets with plenty of salt. And you will inhale their essence, you will test them with your teeth, you will moan orgasmically as you gorge on them. And his house and you and your clothes will smell like those french fries for a long time.

Which is one reason why the mystery maybe isn't so mysterious. The simple, run-of-the-mill french fry is a complete pain in the ass to prepare at home. And so, you're at a restaurant, and you think, I'm already eating a hamburger/cheesesteak/chicken tenders sub, what difference are a few, nice fries going to make? They're only a couple bucks more.

What's worse are those thin little fries like they give you at Steak N' Shake or J. Alexander's, you know, the ones that seem so light and airy compared to those steak fry planks they give you at some places? Well, those skinny ones are worse for you. Why? Because more of the "potato surface" is exposed to the hot grease, making them fattier. Making me fattier.

But they're crispier, I tell myself. They're "properly cooked." They aren't mealy like the big ones that might as well be potato skins. One of the things I've started to notice among the younger set, when a bunch of us teachers go out for a sandwich somewhere, is that many of them just get a sandwich. At first, I thought that was unAmerican (which if you consider the statistic above, it is), but then I started to think, 'Gee, maybe they still have enough to eat for lunch of they just eat a 10-inch sandwich for lunch and forgo the basket of crispy, salty fat.'

Let's talk about those words for a second. Because "crisp" is important to me. I like something crispy or crunchy with a sandwich--a bag of chips, some carrot sticks, fresh cole slaw, a pickle, something. I don't know where that desire for crispness comes from (especially since I don't necessarily like a crispy sandwich), but it's there.

And, I like the "salty," too. There's something almost sweet about a lot of sandwiches--maybe it's the sugar they put in the bread, or the mayo or other sauce, or the basic sweetness of a tomato or a slice of iceberg lettuce. And a salty something seems to be the perfect accompaniment. I guess the "fat" is just a bonus, and I guess, in a nutshell, I've just described everything that is wrong with American eating. They hand us a bomb, and we want a stick of dynamite to go with it.

Here's what I would do if I were me: instead of ritualistically going with fries every time I order a sandwich, I should only get french fries that are exceptional. You know, the ones that are worthy of being called "pommes frites," browned, never pasty, and crispy on the outside, soft as a pillow in the middle, the ones that don't even need ketchup (in most of the world, as much of a travesty as ketchup on a hot dog). If a place is known for their fries, try them. If the fries are an afterthought, skip them.

It's the same kind of logic I use with onion rings. I don't order them just any-old-where; they have to be state-of-the-art, like Ankar's or Nikki's.

But, yeah, speaking for America, I need to kick the french fry habit, and kick it now. I need french fries to stop being the Tonto to my sandwich. After all, if the masked man called himself "The Lone Ranger," how could he, by definition, even be allowed to have a sidekick?


Daisy said...

I love this post. My youngest almost never chooses fries if any other sides are available and I always get shocked looks from friends, family and waitresses as if he is unAmerican!

troutking said...

Bob, I hate to break the news to you but the reason the younger teachers aren't ordering fries is that they can't afford it because administrators like you are sucking down all the salary money.

Two, did you come up with that Lone Ranger bit on your own? That's genius! Or as Banya would say, "That's gold, Jerry, GOLD!"

Three, on this subject, sweet potato fries used to be exciting and special because they were rare. Now that they're everywhere, I can take 'em or leave 'em.

John said...

One: I know the retired fry man in question and you're so right. Amazing, though I've only had them about six or seven times.

Two: I want some of those fries right now.

Great post.

troutking said...

Is it fair to assume that "fry daddy" is not the same person as "buff daddy"?

Bob said...

One: Daisy, you are raising an unAmerican child. Work on that. No sushi for a week.

Two: Trout, yes, the Lone Ranger revelation is indeed mine.

Three: John, never say "retired fry man." Say, "a certain former teacher/administrator fry man, thank you very much."

Hank said...

When I was a freshman, a certain former teacher/administrator fry man, thank you very much, recommended that I bring my own butter to the dining hall to make the fries greasier.

TommyD said...

Possibly the post of the year, but maybe just because I love fries.

But most assuredly the best line of the year: "I don't know where that desire for crispness comes from...but it's there." I'm using that it New Orleans next year...maybe put it on a T-shirt.

Btw, Germany makes great pommes too.