The election is over and still we are the United States of America. Still we are united by our fundamental principles of blurting out whatever we want whenever and to whomever we want to, drinking oceans of flavored vodka and creating fake Twitter accounts of celebrities we like. Most of all, however, we are latticed together by our wide environmental scope of food culture, one that runs from arctic to desert biomes in the forms of, say, low-calorie dust-flavored snack packs of weird pretzel things vs. quardruple-fried bacon-wrapped horse. Cream-cheese bacon cheddar hooves remain a solid choice for a side dish with any item.French fries, named so, according to legend, for the American troops that ate the fried spuds in Flemish markets during World War I, have become the starchy white spots that are the stars of our flag. Potatoes are grown in nearly every state and can be genetically modified easily for flavor, texture and artful presentation. In other words, potatoes are a canvas upon which the urgent needs of our culture are projected. Iowa City, of course, is a great place for fries. With a University-anchored economy that can allow the boutique to thrive, I set out to determine what Iowa City’s best fries were. I failed, which is to say that I hatched from my concept cocoon a different animal entirely, unable to go back. And so I present an ARTicle dedicated to something we neglect as art too often—food, and in this case, simple, cheap street food. Like art, there really is no way to identify any French fry as the best French fry, but what I present here is an art tour of downtown IC’s fries, a showcase developed so that you, dear reader, might carve out that which is most meaningful to you.
Oasis Falafel (206 N. Linn St.) is a good place to start. The chunky, mostly floppy, golden, pillowy fries Oasis makes are ideal for their myriad of toppings and are framed nicely against the kind of fast(er) food and sodas they specialize in. They’re like Grant Wood paintings—cascading, bubbly landscapes of simple, salted flavors for simple days, for the go, and for cheap. They are a pile of airy, trustworthy blocks of simplicity. These are some of the best parts of ourselves, parts that come in a greasy bag and don’t ask a lot of questions, parts that are so reliable we neglect them. The fries Oasis makes are the local gallery, the free, DIY little monuments to America in gold.
Next is Motley Cow Cafe (160 North Linn St.), which a more spacious contemporary food gallery. They didn’t bring ketchup with the fries, but instead garlic aioli. The fries were garnished with fresh parsley. These make for excellent sidecar flavors! The presentation of the hand cut fries is extra attractive, unfurled in a ceramic bowl where everything looks home-decorator-TV-show rustic-modern-matched-well-thank-you-for-inviting-me. They’re thin and straight and crispy with the strips of remaining potato skin cutting flavor swaths along them. They are classic-car cool, like a Cadillac from a bygone time with golden leather seats stuffed with fluffy potato. With a price tag of an extra $2 for a sandwich or nearly $5 for a bowl on their own, these are a higher-rent fry.
Short’s Burger and Shine (18 South Clinton St.) presents the kind of challenge presented by a hyper-modern gallery, one well-funded and probably staffed by an interchanging series of guest curators and mysterious board members—they are inconsistent in their excellence. These are fries I would call far more brown than golden, sometimes very crispy, sometimes very droopy. Since they are double-fried to make sure no flavor breathes out without having been doused in oil beforehand, I strongly recommend the sweet and sour spice of their very runny house BBQ sauce to bathe the fries in as an offering to a bold new world of what fries, like art, CAN be—established in how anti-establishment they can be, mixes of malleable softness and ductile traditional standard. And like a true burger standard, they come with every sandwich in great heaping handfuls. Because we must remind ourselves that more often than not, quantity IS quality. In this case, the fries are both.
I find Iowa City’s biggest gallery—the MoMA, the Guggenheim—to be Clinton Street Social Club (18 1/2 South Clinton St.), an overnight institution in Iowa City that has become, in just handfuls of weeks, a legendary venue of fantastic food, drinks and multi-leveled thrills. Their fries are brown battleships of flavor. These fries consistently offer the most perfect blend of floppy WHILE crispy, on the browner end of gold and speckled with grains of sea salt and pepper that look like they were painstakingly set there by that one kid you knew in kindergarten who took glitter and glue pictures very, very seriously, and when they shook the paper back over the glitter container, you saw a bath of carefully selected stars creating the most visually impressive affect. These are fries that eschew the quick-and-dirty randomness of hodgepodge lunchtime and instead represent the art virtue of reproducing pop art on a commercial grade scale; these fries hit it out of the park each and every time and that’s a part of their design.
A suggestible design, as well. At CSSC, in fact, I must note that my friends asked for “bacon fries” which, while not specifically part of the menu, could be had by employing the $2 “add bacon to anything” policy of the club, and came with two strips of bacon in a Looney-Tunes-like here’s-where-the-treasure-is-buried-or-is-this-a-bomb-target?-X over the top. Two strips of bacon stripped and eaten later, they were just regular fries.
Fries are America. Born abroad and cultivated here to wild new extremes, they are unhealthy, delicious, simple, fun foods that aren’t as comforting as one might think. Through their lens we examine our values regarding long term health and instant gratification. Through their oft-dipped spirits we look back upon what it means to eat happily, deliciously, immediately, in 2012 and in history. It is through this salty lens that we measure ourselves.
Russell Jaffe is the editor of Strange Cage poetry press.