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The snack that supported a war
Freedom fries, cancel culture, and the legacy of a most ridiculous rebranding effort
Hello, Snackers. Let's talk about one of the stranger cultural moments of the early 2000s and its continued resonance today.
This post was originally published in 2021 and has been lightly edited for 2022.
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Freedom fries stand (Atlantic City, 2006) photo via Wikipedia Commons / Snack Stack illustration
It’s a bit after midnight on July 5th as I write this and the fireworks are still going off. Not the official shows, of course—those ended hours ago—but the ones random people launch from alleys and yards and streets and parks, a percussive chorus of booms and pops that is apparently, supposedly, somehow a celebratory gesture in honor of the Fourth of July. So much noise and bluster, obnoxious to me but clearly a great joy to others, which is true of so many symbols of American culture.
It’s gotten me thinking about other ways we represent this country, the visual and cultural markers of Who We Are (the flag, the Statue of Liberty, old-school Americana like Route 66) and what endures as part of the mythology and what fades. And that, in turn, has has led me to French fries—or, actually, freedom fries, the attempt to rebrand deep-fried potato sticks back in the early 2000s as a low-key taunt to the nation of France.
A reminder of the backstory, if one is needed: in early 2003, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush was keen to invade Iraq, as part of its “War on Terror” following the attacks of September 11, 2001 (which, another reminder, were not connected in any way to the Iraqi government or any Iraqi citizens). The United States wanted the UN Security Council to support an invasion, but France and Germany opposed it, which led U.S. Representatives Bob Ney and Walter B. Jones, both Republicans, to use their power to change the menu of the House cafeteria so that, effective March 11, 2003, “French fries” were renamed “freedom fries” and “French toast” became “freedom toast.” Ney and Jones, in an official statement, said that “The action today is a small, but symbolic, effort to show the strong displeasure many on Capitol Hill have with our so-called ally, France.”
The House cafeteria effort followed the lead of a North Carolina restaurant called Cubbie’s, which is generally credited with originating “freedom fries” in February 2003, apparently inspired by World War I-era Americans who started calling frankfurters “hot dogs” and sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” (“It's our way of showing our patriotic pride,” Cubbie’s owner Neal Rowland told the Midland Daily News.) Other restaurants around the USA rebranded their fries, including the chain Fuddrucker’s, but it was never truly a national, large-scale trend, and fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King declined to participate—as with so many things, it was more the concept than the breadth that captured attention. Freedom fries resonated as a symbol of the lengths of chest-thumping nationalism, its absurdity so deep that it was immediately disparaged even among those who supported an invasion—in March 2003, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans were in favor of the war, but 66 percent found Ney’s rebranding of French fries “silly.”
Fries weren’t the only food that got caught up in the geopolitics of the era. Sales of French cheese and wine fell in the USA. But freedom fries are what we remember, the thing that has stuck around as op-ed fodder for more than a decade. Earlier this year, they had a brief run on Twitter as liberal observers, including Hillary Clinton, used them to mock Republicans’ cries about “cancel culture.”
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Beyond the basic, petty political sentiment that freedom fries embodied—“That’ll show the French!”—linguist Sascha Michel has pointed out that there’s something else that made the food endure in cultural memory: it’s an example of quintessentially American “tall talk.” Michel elaborates:
Rhetoric effects used to impress the listener are not infrequent in American culture at all, and are especially common within the realm of politics. Tall talk might in fact explain why French fries did not simply evolve into American fries: the latter does not have the same exaggerated, hyperbolic effect as freedom fries.
But there was something else going on, too, I think. Freedom fries resonated because they represented a rebranding of something that originated elsewhere but has come to feel intrinsically American, a staple of corner bars and drive-throughs, the side dish that goes with a bacon double cheeseburger. This wasn’t about, say, calling escargot “liberty snails” or a croque monsieur an “Uncle Sam-wich,” although surely someone has thought of that. It was about taking a beloved, ubiquitous staple and putting a nationalist mark on it. It's something of a cousin to the culinary colonialism and appropriation of, say, calling chana masala “The Stew” or roti “balloon bread,” or the weirdly common and misleading media portrayal of diners as a symbol of conservative America. More to the point, it's a clear and especially ridiculous example of the long-term conservative project of “owning the libs”—pissing odd people on the left side of the political spectrum for the sole purpose of pissing them off. It was an intentional, blatant provocation intended to needle political opponents while saying, “this is ours, actually.”
Freedom fries were a swagger, a sneer, a reminder that even before the Trump era, everything was political and conservative complaints about liberal overreach were usually bad-faith projection more than anything else. They were a linguistic version of rolling coal or posting MAGA memes—a way of using the inane and the mundane in the service of a broader project of creating an in-group and an out-group, with only one recognized as “the Real America.”
Which is why it’s worth remembering freedom fries and continuing to understand what they meant: as silly as they seem, they offer lessons for today, as an example of the ways cultural battle lines can be drawn anywhere. The House cafeteria eventually switched the name back to “French fries,” in 2006, a few months before Rep. Ney resigned in disgrace and served time in prison, but at Cubbies, freedom fries remain on the menu. Though its moment in the spotlight may come and go, irrational provocation endures as a part of American life.
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