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Erratica: Fry, Freedom

America was discovered because Columbus lost his way; and the Americans have been going off track ever since.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2003 01:28 IST

America was discovered because Columbus lost his way; and the Americans have been going off track ever since. For months, they’ve been screaming that Saddam should burger off, but now instead they’ve gone and bombed the fries. Desert Storm was marked by collateral damage. Looks like the first salvo of its sequel is cholesterol damage.

Thwarted in its drive to am-Bush world opinion, the mighty US has turned its wrath on the humble potato. Not as in mashed, grilled, sauteed with parsley, or even couch. The only targeted spuds are French fries. In retaliation against France for vetoing instead of toeing, US Representative Bob Nevy has ordered the renegade word expunged from the House, or at least from all menus on Capitol Hill. In a new American declaration of independence, French fries will henceforth be labeled Freedom fries.

Presumably a deadline has been set by which time all cafeterias must comply. And, as in the latest conditions that the US wants set on Saddam, their franchise-holders might also be obliged to appear on closed circuit TV saying that they did indeed possess a deadly arsenal of these weapons of mass consumption. If not destroyed, they would leave a bloodied trail of ketchup, maybe even French mustard gas.

However, the pompously patriotic Mr Nevy may have thrown the burger out with the carton. For, far from taking offence or the matter to the UN, France is more likely to smirk proudly at the poetic justice of interchanging ‘French’ with ‘freedom’. Wasn’t the Republic founded on the principle of Liberte along with that of Equalite and Fraternite?

The French may also heave a sigh of relief. The original pommes frites are quite a different kettle of fish from the greasy French fries munched by the average American Joe. The gourmet nation has long shuddered helplessly over its name being associated with this culinary abomination, and, far from organising another French Resistance to Representative Nevy’s diktat, it is likely to open its grand cru champagne to celebrate this liberation.

Arguably, only American-sized hubris can believe that by wiping the word off its menus, it can wipe the floor with France, if not actually wiping the entire country off the map. Besides, where will it stop? The French connection is scattered across the English vocabulary like anthrax spores.

Having said that, by choosing the word ‘freedom’, the Americans have unwittingly hit on the most appropriate substitute for ‘French’. I’m going to keep ‘French Kofi’ out of this discussion for diplomatic reasons, but isn’t a ‘French toast’ something you might equally raise when celebrating freedom? ‘French leave’ releases you from the tyranny of the boss’s sanction just as the ‘French kiss’ breaks the shackles of inhibition. And haven’t ‘French letters’ liberated millions from anxiety, pregnancy and stretch-marks?

My theory is that America’s frustration vis a vis France goes much deeper than a tub of fries or even a silo of Al Samoud missiles. It’s the longer-term and visceral insecurity of the upstart. The US might pretend to be the leader of cultural terrorism, but it knows that for centuries, France has been the La Qaeda of them all.

Well before 1066 and all that, they’ve had De Gaulle to appropriate every worthwhile civilizational standard. The Norman invasion of England went so far as to exile the native Anglo-Saxon words into the kitchen, while French ones ruled over the high table. For example, while ‘cow’ comes from the Old English ‘cu’, its edible avatar, ‘beef’, traces its paternity to the Old French ‘boef’. So, in this recent stand-off, the fat could be in the fire for more than just the fries.

The Americans may not have much use for philosophy and fashion, where France has remained the undisputed superpower. They wouldn’t, if they had any sense of self-preservation, join issue with it over food either. But it’s the other F, as in films, that has left the US writhing on the editing-room floor. Hollywood’s unchallenged hegemony is halted only by France. And, for decades, it has displayed the same intransigence against a Sam Mendes as it has now shown against a meddling Uncle Sam.

Yes, France’s refusal to jump on the Bushwagon must painfully force the Americans to several internal inspections. ‘Regime change’ are both French words. And if George W. is hellbent on proving to the world that apres moi le deluge, may we remind him that a French ruler, with as many delusions of grandeur, said it first.

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Alec Smart said, “Are they changing their name to No Zeal-land?”

First Published: Mar 16, 2003 01:28 IST