Franco-US love first bloomed during the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson was so touched by France’s gifts of guns and money, he publicly described a particular favourite food as “French”. It would be years before ordinary Americans tasted the sophisticated deep-fried potato dish hitherto enjoyed only by slave-owners. When they did, they liked it very much. The Founding Foodie never lived to read the tribute “French fry” written nationwide.
The Franco-American alliance was tested in 2003. When Paris failed to join Washington in its ideological slaughter of Iraqis, Washington withdrew the term “French” from its menus. That showed ‘em. The “right” to order freedom fries — and freedom toast — was sought and won by US politicians in their government cafeterias. Then, other patriotic diners fought to have their cardiac arrests ascribed to the USA, and it probably took the murder of a few French cartoonists before an entire nation could be forgiven by another for its failure to murder countless Muslim civilians.
The culinary reputation of France was restored to the USA for the same reason it had been withdrawn, and even initially given. Apparently, the palate is political. I always laughed when reminded of freedom fries; it’s funny to think that international relations can change the way food is ordered, and hilarious that any person could truly believe that an act of menu re-attribution somehow changes the food. All these fools know what they are eating is a French fry, right, just as surely we know we are eating hot chips? You can’t change the properties of the food by burying the chef’s identity. None could truly experience the freedom fry differently to the French sort. None but the truly deluded.
I believe myself to be beyond delusion, as all persons, save for those classified by doctors as delusional, tend to do. I like to go about believing that my enjoyment of things — fried carbohydrate, music, sex, literature — could not possibly be a site for political influence. I savour certain things because I like them, and how very dare you suggest that I am not in full and natural control of my own taste.
Taste is today considered a natural and inalienable right, up there with individual liberty and property. At arts review sites of the present, it is common to see a dissenting commenter tell a critic, “that’s just your opinion”. This makes a case not only for the bleeding obvious, but our widespread belief in the naturalness and primacy of our taste. An object that we like is an object that we like because we like it, ergo, criticism is useless. Our thinking might go: there is nothing between me and the thing that I like. That relationship is pure. The critic is there to make it dirty.
It’s my view the good contemporary critic does make it dirty. They do not suppose, like the modernist, that the quality of everything, from a French fry to an opera, can be objectively assessed. They do not, like the postmodernist, affirm everything, from Finnegan’s Wake to Grand Theft Auto, can only be subjectively assessed. Instead, they acknowledge that the things we find it appropriate to enjoy are produced and consumed in an actual world. And entertain the possibility that Freedom fries may be enjoyed by many people more freely than the French sort.
If something tastes different to us the minute its creator acquires a bad reputation, it actually does taste different. The modernist in me would like to make the aesthetic case against my recent disposal of a Louis CK Blu-ray I bought in 2012. Surely, I should find his incessant references to his incessant masturbation just as funny five years later. I don’t.
This is hardly objective. But nor is it subjective, entirely. My new opinion of a comic I once enjoyed is not just formed by a “Ew, I can’t stomach all that talk of semen from a bloke who is alleged to have discharged so much of it so unsuitably” response. It’s not altogether a case of knowing a bit more about the conditions in which something was produced. More a case of admitting that the conditions of consumption change over time.
It’s not a case of prescribing enjoyment for others, or even a hope I could prescribe it to myself. Like this troubled critic, I have continued to enjoy the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, even knowing that the director was described in 1993 by a judge as enacting “divisive assault” and of being “grossly inappropriate” to his then seven-year-old daughter. I do not allow myself to consider that this enjoyment is unethical, because the minute I apply a prohibition is the minute I would be most likely to crave the enjoyment for truly unsound reasons.
I’m not pure. Neither are you. Neither is any work of art, and freedom fries will never be good for you.