Remember freedom fries? The bizarre tale of cancelling French fries
Welcome to “Yes, this really happened”! In today’s special installment, we’ll be traveling back to the year 2003, a dark & confusing time for fried potatoes in America. Today, we’ll be talking about “freedom fries”.
If you’re old enough, you’re already cringing & nodding. You remember. If you’re a young’un, you’re just eager to find out why “freedom fries” was trending on Twitter. Fear not, we’ll get to it.
Even if you don’t know what “freedom fries” are, you know what 9/11 was. The 2001 terrorist attack remains one of the biggest tragedies in United States history and one of those key moments you can point to on a global timeline. There’s “before 9/11” and “after 9/11”.
Let’s speed-through the heavy political stuff so we can get to the silly stuff regarding fries. In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush promptly declared a “War on Terror” (there’s another catchy moniker) and proposed an invasion of Iraq as part of it. The United Nations went, “um, wait a minute,” but the U.S. jumped on a desk and said, “Who’s coming with me?”.
France said, “Not me.” The French, stereotypically known for their aversion to military conflicts, wanted to hold off on military actions until the UN said it was okay – go figure. And France wasn’t necessarily unreasonable: the UN eventually determined it couldn’t find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Not that it stopped the United States from going after Iraq anyway – or from calling France a bad friend.
Fries as an emotional weapon
Okay, now we get to the good stuff. The United States was caught up in war fever, and the story pitched to the country was that those French cowards had betrayed us. Something had to be done! Enter Republican Representatives Bob Ney & Walter B. Jones, two men with the perfect idea to stick it to France: renaming the french fries served in the House of Representatives cafeteria as “freedom fries”.
Grief makes people do all sorts of things, many of them irrational. At this point, we were only two years removed from 9/11, and the United States was still grieving. So let’s cut Congress a liiiiiittle slack, maybe. Still, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. Congress, in the middle of the War on Terror, took time out of their busy agenda to photoshop the Capitol’s menus.
To be fair, the whole thing wasn’t even put to a vote. Ney was Chairman of the United States House Committee on House Administration, which has authority over House cafeterias. So he just made it happen: freedom fries for everyone. In a statement, the representative actually called the renaming “a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure many on Capitol Hill have with our so-called ally, France.”
Would you like to upsize to mega freedom?
You know America. We take a catchy concept and run with it. So you shouldn’t be surprised that the “freedom fries” protest expanded beyond the Capitol cafeterias. Several restaurants followed the House’s example, and, suddenly, what you called your fries became indicative of how you felt about the war. French fries – or rather, “freedom fries” – were the face masks of 2003.
Two years later, a Gallup poll offered the following numbers: 66% of Americans thought renaming french fries was silly, 33% thought it was patriotic, and 1% couldn’t be bothered to think about it. Now, those are soul-crushing numbers regardless of where you sit on the issue. Either a third of the country is made up of idiots, or two-thirds of the country is made up of traitors.
Was France upset, though? Did we put french fries through this ordeal for nothing? In response to freedom fries, French Embassy spokeswoman Nathalie Loiseau told The New York Times, “We are working these days on very, very serious issues of war and peace, life and death. We are not working on potatoes.” She then delivered the ultimate burn and pointed out French fries originated in Belgium anyway.
Freedom isn’t free
All good things come to an end, even “freedom fries”. On August 2nd, 2006, the House cafeteria changed the menus back. Bob Ney had resigned due to his participation in the Abramoff/Scanlon Indian lobbying scandal (let’s not get into that), and his successor figured it was time to give french fries their dignity back.
While the rest of the United States also moved on from freedom fries, there still remain pockets of resistance. Look hard enough, and you’ll find the occasional restaurant that still lists freedom fries on their menu. Of course, most of the time, the staff can’t even tell you why they’re called freedom fries anymore. But freedom fries are there, on their menus & in our history, because actions have consequences.
Walter B. Jones would agree. In a 2005 statement to the North Carolina News and Observer, the co-originator of freedom fries said, “I wish it had never happened.”
So why are freedom fries trending? The tl;dr version is this: Republican representative Jim Jordan accused Democrats of abusing “Cancel Culture” . . . only to be reminded by an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers that Republicans once tried to cancel french fries. Brian Murphy, sir, you may have won the internet this week.
Politics! Don’t you love them?