Oct 19 ● BY Rivka Galchen
With bacon, my brother liked the lean, and I liked the fat. With bread, he liked the crumb and I liked the crust. I liked cauliflower, he liked Coca-Cola; I liked green, he liked blue. I liked literature, he liked economics. I asked him about economics, when I realized it ran the world. He never asked me about literature. Though he did once ask about a Picasso painting, a still life of a skull with scallions—what was special about it? Having very little in common was our harmony. He was the skull, and I was the scallions? Maybe the other way around.
But with french fries: he liked all the fries and I liked all the fries. A problematic overlap. I liked the crisp ones, and the soggy ones, and so did he. I liked to line them up by crispiness and eat the least appealing ones first, saving the best for last—an inadvisable approach when your older brother finishes his own fries and then moves in on yours. Kentucky Fried Chicken had the skin-on fries, which we liked. And Chick-fil-A had the waffle-shaped fries, which we liked. McDonald’s had the golden soldiers of thin fries and Arby’s had curly fries, all of which we liked. Our mother had the homemade double-fried fries, dried out on paper towels, and we liked those the best, though we made clear that they should be cut more thin. Our mom said we could cut them ourselves then. But we couldn’t fry them, she said. She had known someone who deep fried the week before her wedding, and had suffered terrible burns, and she didn’t want that to happen to either of us.
We were unusually unhelpful children who didn’t make our beds, put away our shoes or bookbags, or even turn off the lights, but we cut those french fries. We didn’t skip a step. We soaked the potatoes in water, we peeled the skins, we un-eyed the root vegetable, we cut it into rounds, and then those rounds into individuals, all of this done in no hurry. We worked with the private tenderness of wild animals at a salt lick in the dark of night. I couldn’t cut as finely as my brother, so he would often take what I had cut and then make them thin again by half. Sometimes two thins would stick together and I liked that too, and the surprise of rawness in a bite.
I went to the state fair without my brother. At the state fair, a man demonstrated a tool that let you make curly fries at home. A small ring-shaped blade was attached at an angle to a poker of sorts. The handle was a pale-green laminate. It was a fondue fork repurposed, really. The demonstrator stabbed a peeled potato with confidence, turned his wrist with grace, and geometries emerged so elegant as to please Euclid. I bought two of the tools, at two dollars apiece, with a laminated handle the same pale-green color as the base of the city pool. They lived in a drawer at home, like utensil characters in a children’s book who had melancholy discussions about being forgotten, never used.
Later my brother and I ate french fries in separate cities, at separate times. As was the natural trajectory of growing up, an arc equally appreciable by Euclid, it was nothing to complain about. There were french fries in cups. french fries alongside fried fish. Fries alone, wrapped in a square of butcher paper. I’m sure there was vinegar here, mayonnaise there, ketchups of all varieties in all sorts of places. But the dressings are blurry, it was a less important era of french fries. The fries were sometimes potatoes dauphinoise, or hash browns.
I went through a rational phase—fries were a deception, an illusion of nutrition. The salt and fat told my inner Neanderthal that these were the goods, but all the goods were gone, only the shell of chemistry was still in place. Why was I a sucker? I ate less deceptive foods, with frank colors, or ostentatious bitterness. Perfectly nice foods in their way, if proud. I ate bland foods but also fermented foods, pickled foods but also string cheese. For a time there were even foods on fire. Or foods that had to be reconstituted.
Sometimes, not infrequently, I saw outside of delis, late at night, men peeling whole pickle barrels of potatoes. The peelings went on the ground, the potatoes back in the water.
Behind the peelers, roses and carnations were for sale, ten dollars for a dozen, fifteen dollars for two. I went home and tried the green laminate-handled curly fry-making utensil. It had traveled with me so many times!
I met my brother for steak and french fries. The fries were delicious. My brother said they were okay. I know some better fries, I’ll take you there. I was the skull, he was the scallions.