Freedom Fries are Deep-Fried US Arrogance

November 20, 2008 at 7:33 am (Published)

Published in Pittsburgh CityPaper, March 20, 2003.


I’ve always loved The Pickle Barrel on East Carson Street. The prices are fantastic, the food is yummy (especially the pickles), and you always stumble into at least one really friendly, or at least interesting, conversation. Our city’s ancients bustle in and out, sit on barstools and talk about what the steel mills were like, much like you’d picture a New England tavern teeming with yarn-swapping, grizzled old men of the sea. The Pickle Barrel, at least for me, has always been a wonderful example of a truly Pittsburgh eatery.


Unfortunately, I can’t eat there anymore.


France, our country’s long-time ally, is doing whatever it can to prevent World War III. Say what you will about that, but for France, it’s an honest decision inspired by conscience. Now, on Capitol Hill, our lawmakers have decided to change the name of the French fries in their cafeteria to “Freedom Fries” to protest the French position, since our president once proclaimed that anyone who stands against us must surely be with the terrorists. And now, in Pittsburgh, my beloved Pickle Barrel has followed suit and changed the names of two menu items to protest the French position: French fries are now called “U.S.A. fries” and French toast is now called “Freedom Toast.”


Why does this make sense, and where will it stop?


Will my neighborhood video store stop renting out The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The French Connection, French Kiss, and anything starring Gerard Depardieu, Sophie Marceau or Juliette Binoche? (Then again, removing Depardieu movies might actually be a favor to movie enthusiasts…) Will my daughter be victimized at school if I do her hair in a French twist or French braids? Will everyone with French poodles be pressured to euthanize their pets? And where the hell do Americans get off still celebrating Mardi Gras this year?


When I go someplace for lunch, I am there for lunch. For food. For atmosphere. To get out of my office and focus on something other than my computer or on the increasingly grim headlines it feeds me. I don’t go to lunch for controversy or political intrigue, or else I’d eat every day at the County Courthouse cafeteria.


When Capitol Hill makes a move like this, it gets media coverage that actually makes it to France, where the French can ponder the issue and the opinions being expressed. When some burger joint in Pittsburgh does it, it merely feeds anger and frustration and, honestly, wastes valuable human energy. If The Pickle Barrel wishes to support our president or his international policies, couldn’t that position be better served by doing something positive and proactive, rather than tearing another country down? What about giving meal discounts to the families whose reservist breadwinners were just activated and sent overseas? Or inflating prices a bit to purchase something for military members or their families with the proceeds? Or making military recruiting information available at the restaurant in case anyone wants to enlist? Or offering American flags and political petitions on-site?


The healthier course right now would be to abandon fries altogether, no matter what they’re being called. Our typical American stereotype of the French includes berets, maitre d’s, more snootiness and fewer showers. The typical French stereotype of Americans is that we are fat, lazy, arrogant warmongers. And when we are being truly honest about it, there’s a mite of truth in both caricatures. If every Pittsburgher who agrees with the Pickle Barrel gave up fries altogether, we’d at least begin to dismember the “fat” part of the equation… but “statements” like Congress and The Pickle Barrel recently made will hardly get our case for arrogance dismissed anytime soon.


Times are tense, there’s no doubt. And when that happens, people (especially left-leaning, pacifist hippie people like me) get louder about their political opinions. But if The Pickle Barrel’s owner insists on exercising his constitutional right to express himself by spreading anger and arrogance, then I’ll exercise my right to eat someplace else, yummy pickles or not.


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