The True Story of Valley Forge Fries
The sidewalk cafe was on a quiet Mont-Royal corner. There were five or six round tables along a brick wall and while the late morning sun was out, the owners had not unrolled the awning. Up and down the leafy street were alternating swatches of light and shade. A bicycle sat unattended next to the tables.
Jake Atwater and Dan Tedesco sat at the table on the far right side, against the wall, nearest the door. At the table next to them a man with a black beard and a ponytail read the paper, and next to him were two women, each talking non-stop in French. Beyond them were two men in suits doing business, and in the very first table, right on the street corner, were two old men from central casting, gesturing passionately.
It was a portrait of the industrious and the indolent.
Over their heads was one of those old world signs. A tuxedoed arm held up a weathered coffee cup hanging from a wrought iron frame that extended perpendicular to the brick wall.
Jake looked at the sign. Speaking out loud as much as to anyone in particular he said, “that sign is like pure fucking marketing. No strategic positioning, no brand promise. It doesn’t claim to empower you or feed your aspirations. It says, ‘if you want a cup of coffee here the fuck I am.’
“That’s like an essence, right? It’s simple. Powerful. True.”
Dan Tedesco looked up at the sign, wincing when he turned his neck. “You’re awfully philosophical for a guy with a hangover. It’s just a cue. Don’t lose your fucking mind.”
“Maybe we could start a sign company. The Great Vermont Sign Company. Maybe that’s something we could do.”
“A sign company?”
“Yeah. The Great Vermont Sign Company. Icons of truth. The essence of pleasure.”
“Not much need for a copywriter is there? Partner?”
“You should learn graphics. I always said that.”
Dan scowled at Jake who was now looking at his reflection in the napkin dispenser.
"I look like shit," Jake said.
"Yes, you do. Why didn't you just ask?" said Dan.
"Because you're a liar."
The waitress came by their table with their coffee. "Bonjour, deux cafés au lait pour les deux messieurs," she said.
The smell of the coffee hit Jake's nostrils and he breathed it in, the acrid scent spreading through his body. That’s the stuff, he thought.
"You don't look any better," said Jake.
"This is how we should look." Dan took a long sip of his coffee. “We are on the Epic Futile Bender. We are taunting fate--blowing smoke in its face, stepping on its toes, snapping a towel at it. What we are doing is self-destructive at every possible level. I didn’t know you wanted to look good while we did it.”
“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” said Jake.
“Of course it wasn’t a good idea. It was a stupid thing to do. That was the whole point.”
“Were we drunk when we decided this?”
“No, we were just desperate.”
The waitress came back to see if they wanted something to eat. Jake’s stomach was flipping. He looked around. Everyone was eating lunch. That was good to know. He looked at the waitress--he could see her lacy bra as she leaned over--and shrugged his shoulders. “What’s the best?” he asked.
“Poutine.” She smiled. He wondered if she might have a fetish for hung-over unemployed men.
“Excellent. One, s’il vous plait.”
“And two Bloody Marys,” said Dan.
They sat in silence for a minute or two. Dan finally spoke.
“We tried everything that made sense. Have some faith, for once. Or, at least suspend your disbelief until the conclusion of the Epic Futile Bender.”
Jake took a long, deep breath of cool Montreal spring air. The waitress left the Bloody Marys.
“To epic futility,” said Dan.
They had, indeed, conceived of the Epic Futile Bender in a state of sober desperation. Five months before they had involuntarily left the Vermont Dairy Board clutching six months of severance pay and a firm conviction that as a creative team, they would not be unemployed long.
Dan was the writer and Jake was the designer. They had met at the Dairy Board. Their campaign, “Vermont has happier cows,” accented by an insouciant cow, had been a perfect fit in a softer world. Sales had risen 7%.
Everything seemed to be going fine until the economy soured and people stopped caring about cows and buying designer cheese, and there was a meeting and they were out. Their work was good, though, and they were sure they would not be jobless long.
The first taste of the Bloody Mary made Jake nauseous. The second was better. Everything felt better. The waitress placed their poutine down on the table just as Dan was shaking his drink to free the last bits of vodka from between the ice cubes. “Two more,” he said.
They both stared at the poutine, french fries covered in brown gravy and white curds of cheese.
“What the fuck did you order?” said Dan.
“I forget, pontoon or something. She said it was good.”
Dan looked at it through narrowed eyes. “It looks like somebody threw up.”
“Welcome to Quebec, asshole,” said Jake, sticking a fry in his mouth. “You know what? This is fucking-A good.”
“If you eat with your eyes closed.”
“Eat it with your fucking eyes closed, I don’t care, this is good shit.”
“What is it called again?”
Dan grabbed a fry and stuck it in his mouth, a little gravy dripping onto his chin. He nodded his head. “See, things are looking up. This shit is epic, and it is not futile.”
On the strength of the poutine, they rallied. A couple more Bloody Marys went down and then they did a shot for good measure, paid the bill with part of their dwindling severance, and headed onto the Montreal streets.
Hours later they were sitting on the curb outside the Le Tambourin, a pulsating, blue neon club. Behind them were angry shouts and what they took to be cursing. Neither Jake nor Dan could stop giggling.
Only a few minutes before they had been in the bar, drinking shots of whisky and chasing it with Labatt 50. There had been an incident. A woman came by and Dan saw she was wearing pantaloons. He tried to talk to her about it while claiming to be a reporter from Vogue. Trouble started, bouncers arrived and they were out on the sidewalk. (In truth, only Dan was thrown out. The bouncers had been clear that Jake could stay.)
After several minutes, they were finally able to speak. “What a fucking day,” said Dan.
Jake shrugged his shoulders. “Lunch was good.”
A couple weeks later, Jake was in Dan’s apartment, a two-bedroom beige carpet affair with a lot of books and little on the walls but white paint. Jake had placed a dozen black storyboards on an easel in the corner. The first one said, “The Future: An Act of Creation”, in white letters on a black background with fluorescent stars in the sky.
“Old school, baby,” said Jake. “No powerpoint. Fucking storyboards.”
“That’s because we don’t have a projector.”
“We are in touch with our roots. We are seeking something truly ownable and we will find it by following our creative heritage, hand-drawn on paper.”
Jake flipped to the second board. It was titled “Face the Brutal Facts.” Below that were some bullets: “Hiring freezes,” “declining advertising spending,” “personal bankruptcy” and “nobodies.” Jake had placed the copy over a blurry photo of the lobby of their former employer.
“Jesus. A little heavy handed, no?” said Dan.
“Consider it audience awareness,” Jake said.
He flipped to the next board. It was a drawing of a cobbled path running through a grassy meadow. The copy in white against the grass, read “Goals. Create something revolutionary. Change the world. Be different. Be great.”
He flipped the next board. It had a photo of a beaten up foodwagon that was painted white but trimmed with rust. A sign hanging by one screw off the front said “St. Albans Rotary.” Jake had stenciled the word transform in the corner.
“Where ever this is leading, I’m guessing it isn’t a career in motivational speaking.”
“Now, before I flip the next board, I want you to think about the reaction that greeted every new idea. Every truly new and exciting idea looks stupid at first. As an example, I give you designer teddy bears.”
“You have now lowered my expectations below what they were when you started.”
“So I want you to think about the possibilities of something completely new and radical.” He flipped the board. On it was a picture of their Montreal lunch. “Poutine!”
Jake quickly flipped to the next board. He had taken St. Albans Rotary wagon and decorated in blue and white, with fleur de lis across the top. Quebec flags fluttered from the corners, and the cartoon workers on the inside were wearing blue berets on their heads and knotted blue scarves around their neck. The giant sign had been changed from “St. Albans Rotary” to “Poutine: The French Canadian Treat.”
“Let me guess. Those two guys are us?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Look, we do it for the summer. We pay our rent. At the end of the summer, worst case we dump the fucking thing and get jobs.”
“Are you sure that’s not the best case? I mean the worst case might be that we could poison half of New England or be murdered by some carnie that hasn't taken his meds and he could chop our bodies up and bury them under the Ferris wheel.”
With this, Jake flipped to the last board. Presciently, it was labeled “The Best Case.” Here, Jake had sketched a restaurant on a busy street corner in New York. There was a sign hanging off the building, and it said “Poutine” with a beret on top. He had drawn a line of people waiting to get in.
“The best case is that we take the poutine on the festival circuit. People like it. They start to talk about it. We get some media. We go viral. Soon, people are seeking us out. We get some investors, and start to open poutine shops. And we look back and think: we were on the ground floor of something huge and we did it right.”
Dan sat holding his face in his hands. “Maybe I shouldn't have introduced you to the phrase ‘epic futility,’” he said.
Two days later, the Rotary Wagon was sitting behind Jake’s apartment. The wagon itself was little more than a white aluminum rectangle, about 14 feet long and 8 feet wide. The front half had flaps that opened on all three sides and served as awnings when they were propped open. Customers would come to either of the two side windows to be served, and the front had a long pane of glass so that Jake and Dan could display the food.
A few hard days later, it was outfitted in accordance with the storyboards. Dan had made the mechanical repairs, and installed the poutine equipment, which they had purchased at an auction from a failed 50’s theme diner in Burlington.
And a week or so after that, they were on the midway of the Lake Champlain Unitarian Parish Festival, in a lineup with lemonade stands, Belgian Waffles, Italian Sausages, Cotton Candy and Corn Dogs. The air was filled with the buzzers and bells of a carnival, all laid over a perpetual track of faux calliope music.
Jake didn’t hear any of it as he stood in front of the trailer, making a final appraisal of his work. The fleur de lis flags were rippling in the morning breeze, and the shallow sun cast the wagon in a way that looked heroic to Jake. His classic sign--the poutine with a beret--extended on a diagonal off the corner of the wagon. The final touch was traditional French Canadian folk music playing from speakers mounted in the corners.
“This is fucking perfect,” he said.
Dan was working in the wagon, wearing his assigned costume. A big pot of industrially purchased brown gravy bubbled on a stove, and cheese curds were in a bowl warming. There was fresh oil in the fryer, and the potatoes were scrubbed and waiting. They placed a couple of bowls of poutine up front in the show window.
Jake took a camera out of his apron and snapped a photo, using his art director skills to make sure it was framed perfectly enough that it could someday grace the walls of each of their restaurants.
And then he climbed into the wagon.
“This is the beginning," he said. "Savor it."
Dan scowled. “The land of opportunity.”
The Korean-war era speakers mounted on telephone poles along the midway squawked and rattled. “Good morning. The 125th Annual Lake Champlain Unitarian Parish Festival is now officially open. Let us open the gates and share in fellowship.”
Jake watched the people come down the midway. There were young and old, sometimes a teenage couple holding hands, sometimes a Mom with two small children shimmering with energy. Men came by with their hair in pigtails, and women came by with their hair shorn. Senior citizens with all the time in the world ambled by in shorts showing off the pale legs of Northerners in spring.
Each of them glanced at the wagon and turned away.
Jake turned to Dan, who was sitting in the back of the wagon with his feet up and his eyes closed, listening to his ipod. “People are curious,” Jake shouted. “That’s a good sign.”
Dan looked at him out of one eye, without moving another muscle.
“It’s not lunchtime yet. That’s all,” Jake said.
A moment later, a large man with a bushy black beard glanced at the stand, looked away, and then (Jake’s heart stopped) looked back again. He stopped entirely and came over.
“Dan, get up. It’s starting.”
The man reached the counter. “One poutine,” he said. “Extra curds.”
Dan took a paper basket and scooped the fries into it. Then, he dipped a long-handled ladle into the gravy, stirred it quickly and poured two ladlefuls onto the fries. He then took his gloved hands and tossed a handful of pearl white cheese curds across the whole mess. He stuck a fork into the fries so it was standing vertically, an aesthetic touch that Jake had insisted on. They handed it across the counter, and collected their first $6.
The man grinned as he took the basket. “You don’t know what a sight for sore eyes this is,” he said.
“You’ve seen poutine before?” Jake asked.
“I grew up in Quebec City, this was our national dish.” He sniffed the basket. “Seems pretty authentic. You boys from Quebec?” Jake could hear Dan snort from behind.
“No, we’re not,” said Jake. “We tried it on a trip.”
“Huh. Well, thanks for reminding me of home.” He took his poutine and ambled off down the midway. They watched him the whole way, until he was lost in a crowd.
Dan broke the silence. “Jake, how many Quebecois expatriates you suppose live in this area?”
“Because if we could get them all by here, every fucking one of them, maybe we could make a living.” He walked back to the back of the trailer and put his ear buds back in, closing his eyes. “At least we have potatoes to eat, so we won’t starve. There’s some comfort there.”
Jake stood watching people pass by for the remainder of the afternoon. He waved, he smiled, he yelled hello. Around dinnertime, the traffic on the midway picked up, and people were walking past the poutine wagon in much larger numbers.
Around 6:00, when the crowd was at its peak, a customer finally came up to the wagon. “So, you’re selling fries with gravy and cheese?”
“Poutine. That’s right. It is the most popular food in Quebec.”
“Who knew? Listen, I’d like to get some fries, but hold the gravy and the cheese. Can I do that?”
“Why don’t you just go to the fries stand?”
“The line’s too long.”
From the back, Dan was whistling Taps.
At the end of the day they had made $23. Gross.
“Maybe people just have to get used to the idea,” Jake said. He and Dan were closing down the wagon.
“So, the theory would be that if these exact people came back here tomorrow, we’d have a shot. Or maybe they’ve been thinking about french fries and gravy since they left. Can’t get it off their fucking mind. And they make a special trip back to the fair just to make it stop.”
“Maybe it was the costumes,” Jake said. “What do you think? Flannel shirts? Toques?”
“July over frying oil…with flannel. Nice combination.”
Jake latched the last of the flaps, and they were standing alone in the dim wagon. The sounds of the midway were finally muffled.
“Well, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, it matters how many times you get back up,” said Jake.
“But if you have no idea what you are going to do to avoid getting knocked down again, it's just self-abuse.”
“We can’t quit after one day.”
“That’s what they said when they invented New Coke.”
There was a knock on the back door. They opened it to find a very short man with a crew cut, a sleeveless T-shirt and the dirtiest pair of work boots either of them had ever seen. “Hey fellas,” he said. “I’m Jeremy. I run the Tilt-a-whirl. You two are new on the circuit, right?”
“We’re on a circuit?” asked Dan. “There’s a circuit?”
“Thirsty?” The tilt-a-whirl man held up a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Jake grabbed it and took a drink. Dan declined by waving an open palm.
“I’d think you’d want it after the day you fellas had,” said Jeremy.
“You could tell?”
“When the ride runs, I look around.”
“Very resourceful,” said Dan.
“You fellas are never going to make it like you’re doing,” said Jeremy.
“You know we are professional marketers, right?” asked Jake.
Jeremy looked at him. “It don’t show that much.”
“Hey, no offense. I’m sure you are. I just said it didn’t show. Maybe this is a business you don’t get.”
Jake spread his arms wide. “Teach us.”
Jeremy took a swig of the Jack, and offered it again. This time, they both took a hit. “See, you fellas have to keep one thing in mind. Well, two things. First, people have this idea what fair food is. Corn dogs, cotton candy, elephant ears, french fries. Platoon, or whatever you are serving, that ain’t something they used to seeing. Strike one.
“Then, you have to remember that people hate the French. Fairs are All-American. And they go down the midway and you fellas have French music and those French flags. They keep surrendering and no one likes them.”
“It’s not French. It’s French-Canadian. Canada is our ally,” Jake said.
“I don’t think people are going to split hairs like that.”
Dan looked at Jake. “You never were any good at audience awareness.”
“If it’s so All-American, then explain this to me,” Jake said. “What about Belgian waffles?”
“Belgian is completely different situation. Nobody hates Belgian.”
“And French Fries? What about French Fries?”
“Yeah, that’s fucked up. But ask anyone. French Fries are an all-American food.”
“So, in your professional opinion, we’re fucked,” said Dan.
“I been doing the fair circuit for 20 years. I’m telling you. That ain’t gonna work.”
Jake and Dan continued on the same path until the end of the festival, and they continued to get the same results, day by day. They would serve the occasional expatriate Quebecois or curious bumpkin, but what they mostly saw was people walking past their wagon, and sometimes crossing the midway to avoid them.
When the festival was over, Jake and Dan were cleaning up. There was a silence in the wagon, save for the squeaking sound of a scrub brush or the gurgle of a draining sink. After a half an hour, Dan spoke.
“One hour. Brainstorming meeting.”
“Fuck you. This has to get fixed.”
“You’re giving up too soon.”
“You can’t change minds on a carnival midway.”
“You always were a cynic.”
“You can’t argue with the results.”
“What about all the great inventors who persevered and were proven right?”
“What about the ones who had stupid ideas and ended up broke?”
There was a long silence. Jake was wiping the water off the counters. “I’m not coming.”
“Then don’t expect to see me in the morning.”
An hour later, Dan was behind the wagon. He had found a large shard of frosted Plexiglas, and he had propped it up along the back of the wagon. Some markers were in a poutine basket. Dan sat on the ground, his back against the wagon, his eyes closed, waiting.
Five minutes passed, and then a few minutes more. Dan heard some quiet footsteps and opened his eyes. Jake was standing there, still wearing his apron but without his blue scarf. “Ready?” said Dan.
“I guess. What the fuck is that?” he said, pointing at the Plexiglas.
“In this shithole, that is a whiteboard.”
They proceeded as they had done so many times before with Dan presenting the brief.
“The situation is that we had a plan to sell a food product in a festival environment. Our first venture to market has produced unsatisfactory results. Our strategy was to sell the food under an authentic French-Canadian motif. I’d like to propose that we proceed with the idea that there is nothing wrong the product itself. Buying this food is consistent with decisions people make in this market every day.
“What we need to consider is the strategy. We have two issues. People hate the French, and our product is unfamiliar. We need to market it in a way that makes it feel familiar and un-hated."
Dan took a magic marker. “For example, I’d like to suggest that we attempt to tie into the megachurch movement and call them Christian Fries. We can put a sign up saying that 10% of the proceeds will go to some Christian mission.”
He wrote “Christian Fries” on the Plexiglas.
“We’d actually give money to megachurches?”
“There’s no Ethical Standards Board in the carny industry.”
“Just what you needed. Why be so radical? Why can’t we just call them Canadian Fries? Drop the French shit but put up maple leafs.”
“In the spirit of brainstorming I am writing that down.”
“Or Mountie Fries? We could dress as Mounties.”
“I’m writing that down, too.”
“What about Moose fries? We could have cartoon moose all over the wagon?”
Dan wrote that one down without comment. “I was thinking about Hunter’s Fries," he said. "There’d be a story about how hunters used to eat this in the woods when they were killing grouse.”
“In the spirit of brainstorming, write that down.”
They bounced a couple more ideas. Jake suggested Mackenzie Fries, and Dan suggested Virginia Fries and then Redneck Fries, which Jake refused to let him even write down when he heard about the costumes.
There was a long pause. They stared at the board. Dan broke the silence. “Valley Forge Fries.”
“That’s the stupidest one yet.”
“No, it’s not. People love the American Revolution. It is a universal positive.”
“But what does it have to do with poutine?”
“What fucking difference does it make? What does floor wax have to do with happiness?”
“I swear to God, I don’t know what you did for a living all those years.”
Dan took the green magic marker and circled the words “Valley Forge Fries” on the Plexiglas. “We did it your way,” he said. “Now we’re going to do it my way.” He held up the whiteboard. “Do you want to save this for our museum?”
When they returned to the circuit they had re-tooled the wagon. It was now decked in red-white-and-blue bunting, and looked like the last part of a whistle-stop train. Their costumes were changed, too. They wore tricorns on their head and t-shirts that were made to look like double-buttoned tunics.
The drink machine had an image of a giant canteen pasted on it, and Dan had rigged up a button on the floor that allowed them to play a cannon sound effect when they dumped the fries out of the basket.
And that Monday morning it started again. They opened the wagon, letting in the buzzers and bells and the drifting scents of the other foods, getting an enthusiastic thumbs up from Jeremy, who was testing the Ferris wheel on the other side of the midway.
The fair opened, and a couple of minutes later people began to shuffle down the midway and past their stand. Their hearts sank.
Somewhere a butterfly flapped its wings. A middle-aged couple, each of them shorter than the other, took a look at their wagon, and stopped in the middle of the midway. They paused for a moment, stared blankly at the booth, and then they walked over.
“How may I help you?” said Jake.
“What are Valley Forge Fries?” the woman asked. She had thin, moppy grey and brown hair and was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a T-shirt that proclaimed her to be a “Proud Band Grandma.”
Jake took a second to collect his thoughts. It was the question he had dreaded, fired at him like the first musket ball at Concord. Clearing his throat, he said, “It is a special treat that combines the tastes of Colonial times…made from french fries, gravy and cheese curds.”
He braced himself for a follow up question. Behind him, at the fryer, he could hear Dan giggle—and he pushed the cannon button.
She looked at her husband. “That sounds really good. Fix me up one.”
“One order of Valley Forge Fries, sir,” Jake said, and Dan chuckled as the potatoes were tossed into convulsing oil and then dumped into the big fry bin (Boom!) which made the woman laugh. Gravy was ladled and curds tossed on and it was done. The couple left, munching away.
From there, it was the busiest and most tiring day of Jake’s life. Someone saw the couple with their Valley Forge Fries--perhaps they were Band Grandparents too--and they came over to try it, and other people came by on their own and a small line started to form and people saw that, and it all added up to a day of frantic french fry dropping, sound effect stomping and basket shoveling—all in support of the dish formerly known as poutine.
In Jeremy’s words, when he stopped by that night with his bottle of Jack Daniels: “shitfuck, you might just have invented the first new carnival food since PT Barnum.”
Sales always started slow, but by the evening of the first day of a festival, there was always a line, regardless of whether they were in Brattleboro, Eden, Tinmouth or Jericho. It was as if they had discovered a magic rock that only had to be dropped into a pond--any pond--and the still water would turn to milk.
“We should try to get some publicity,” said Dan, one night, while the two of them sat in outside their camper drinking beer from the can. “Maybe we can get sales going right from the beginning.”
“What do you know about publicity?” Jake asked.
“I worked at a PR firm when I got out of college. For six months.”
“No fucking shit. You kept that a secret.”
“It is a period I would rather forget," Dan said.
Jake shrugged. "We can pitch them a human-interest angle. Two laid off admen who were at the end of their rope who used their creative skills to invent Valley Forge Fries, and spent the year travelling the single lane roads of Vermont in a camper and a small wagon.”
“BOR-ing,” said Dan. “Very fucking BOR-ing. We need a myth.”
“A myth? Never in the history of business has someone needed a myth.”
“We need a really good one,” said Dan. “We need one that people are dying to repeat.”
“Like HP in the garage? We already have that. What’s better than the two of us brainstorming on Plexiglas after hours at a carnival.”
“The business doesn’t need a creation myth, Jake. The product does.”
“The product already existed.”
“Poutine existed. Valley Forge Fries did not.”
It was Monday the next week, the beginning of another festival week. Dan had sent his advance releases out, but they had yet to hear from any reporters. While they prepped, a teenage girl stopped by, chewing gum but otherwise indifferent. “They need to see one of you in the office,” she said before walking away.
Jake left to handle it. A moment or two later, Dan was stirring the gravy, and he heard a quiet knocking on the side counter. He turned around and saw a short, stocky man with so little neck he was nearly hunchbacked. He had a thick black beard and wore a wide-brimmed safari hat.
“We’re not open yet,” Dan said.
“I’m not here to eat,” the main. “I’m Arthur Shue, with the Mountain Daily. You folks sent us a press release.”
Dan turned and smiled. “So we did,” he said. “Are you here to learn the true story of Valley Forge Fries?”
“That and nothing else,” he said. He stood on his tiptoes and peered over the counter. “What the fuck is it?”
Dan picked up a basket of fries and tossed them into the oil, taking care to fire off the cannon sound effect.
Shue laughed. “Very clever.”
“Media get free samples,” Jake said.
“Too fucking right, that’s why I’m a reporter. So, what is the story behind Valley Forge Fries?”
Dan stared into the bubbling oil for a minute, shaking the basket a couple times. “I’m glad you asked,” he said, finally. “It’s actually an incredible story.”
He turned and faced the reporter. “The dish was created during the American revolution.”
“Indeed. During the winter at Valley Forge, of course, it was incredibly cold and the Continental Army was short of provisions. People don’t know this, but statistically it was the coldest winter in the history of that area. Around noon one day, a man approached the guard post, walking on show shoes and carrying a large iron pot by its handle. When he set it down to talk to the guard, steam rose from the snow.
“He told the guard that he lived on a farm nearby and wanted to show his support for the Continental Army. He was sure that they were short of food--as he was himself--but he had assembled a dish made from the scraps he did have.”
Dan stopped for a minute and tossed the fries into the bin. He fished a few out and put them into a tray, poured the gravy over the top and sprinkled the cheese along with it. “What he had in that iron pot was roughly this,” he said, as he pushed it across the counter.
“The potatoes were probably cut different and less fresh, but the basic idea was that he had fried some potatoes from the cellar, added gravy he had made from a few leftover pieces of beef, and cheese chunks he had in the kitchen.
“The guard let him in and took him to see General Washington, who was naturally concerned that he was a British spy sent to poison the Revolutionary troops. To prove himself, the farmer took the first bite, and to show his solidarity with his men, General Washington took the second.
“The troops were invited to help themselves from the iron pot. They all ate lustily of the offered dish, and shared an afternoon of fellowship and communion in their winter of sacrifice. When the food was gone and dark was coming, the farmer took his iron pot, saluted General Washington, and waved to the soldiers before trudging over a snowy hill.
“The last they saw of him was his silhouette as he walked toward a setting sun. A half hour later or so, just a mile down the road, there was a shot, which everyone assumed was a hungry hunter. But this was a different kind of hunter. A rogue loyalist had shot the farmer on his way home and killed him.
“And that is the story of how Valley Forge Fries came to be.”
The reporter finished scribbling his notes. He reached into the basket and pulled out a fry dripping with gravy. “This is pretty good shit,” he said. “That’s a pretty wild story. Who would have thought?”
“You'd be surprised,” said Dan.
He flipped through his notes. “What was this Farmer’s name.”
Dan paused for a moment. “You know, it’s interesting. He is lost to the ages. We are researching that though. We’d love to know the answer.”
“Fuck me. Valley Forge Fries,” Shue said, thoughtfully. He flipped his notebook closed. “Got what I need. Thanks for your time. Keep an eye on the paper.”
Two days later, the first customer in line was a rangy man wearing cut off jeans and a self-converted sleeveless red T-shirt that said “Go Huskies.” The shirt had a cartoon of a scowling dog on the front. He and the dog both had earrings.
He ordered a basket of Valley Forge Fries, tapping his money on the counter while he waited. “I’m a history buff, so I’m excited about this,” he said, to no one in particular.
Jake was hustling around. “That’s great,” he said, “thanks for stopping by.”
“I never come to festivals, but I had to try these fries.”
“You paid a festival admission to eat our fries?”
“How could I not? I’ve been to 112 Revolutionary battlefields. My basement is filled with memorabilia. I have a sword used in Carleton’s raid. How could I miss the food George Washington ate at Valley Forge?”
Jake stopped his movement. He turned and looked at Dan, who was making himself busy with the fries. Jake took a deep breath. “Where did you hear that?” he asked.
“In the paper. Big story! You didn’t see it?”
“In the paper?”
“Sure, the Mountain Trib.”
“No. I haven't see it.” Jake turned around again. Dan whistled and flipped the fries.
Deep in the line, a tall, middle-aged woman with blond hair sticking out the back of her ballcap waved a newspaper in the air. “Here it is!” It was passed to Jake like a bucket of water.
The headline read “Historic Fare: Food from Valley Forge Served at The Ryegate Festival.” Jake closed his eyes. He opened them, and read the lede.
A basket full of American History has found its way to the Ryegate Shriner Festival on the corner of Chittenton and Tichenor roads here in Ryegate. Just inside the main gate, third booth to the left along the midway, is a wagon that would appear to be like any other festival food stand. But instead of corn dogs, this stand is selling American History.
Jake scanned from there, finding the words “co-discoverer Dan Tedesco” buried inside a long story detailing the story of a winter day in Pennsylvania where “Valley Forge Potatoes” were invented with ingredients in an unknown farmer’s pantry.
“It’s on the Internet, too” said a kid with a University of Vermont shirt. “That’s where i saw it.”
Jake felt his teeth grind. His forehead felt even moister than the air. He looked at the man in front of him, an earnest and trusting lover of American History. Behind him were two dozen people standing in stifling humidity just for a bite of American History. And they had their money in their hands.
Jake handed the paper back to the man in the Huskie shirt and winked at him. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he said, smiling out of the side of his mouth.
They served the customers through the day, a whirling dispensary. When dark came and the air finally cooled, they were both exhausted, slumping against the walls of the wagon, chugging bottles of cold water.
Neither of them talked for what seemed like a long time. It was Jake who could not stand the silence first.
“You are a motherfucker, do you know that?”
“I guess I didn’t.”
“I thought we were partners.”
“We are. You get half of today’s profits.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“What makes it wrong? Did I hurt your feelings?”
“You went too far. You told a huge fucking lie, you involved me, and you did it without my consent.”
“No. Instead of boring people by talking about ourselves, I gave them what they wanted.”
“They want to be tricked?”
“They want more than a pile of fries.”
“Things cannot have meaning and be a lie at the same time.”
“Unless everything does.”
“Always the brilliant cynic.”
“People create meaning. If we didn’t, there’d be no advertising, no novels, no movies, no poetry and no wars.”
“You understand that there is a difference between writing Great Expectations and lying about poutine, right?”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“There will be a backlash," Jake said "People who believe and then are fooled are the most pissed off people in the world.”
“How do you think they felt while they were here? Somewhere, every one of them is talking about it right now.”
“It's not right. We wanted to do it right.”
“Stick to pictures.”
They were quiet for a minute. Jake’s breathing began to slow. Dan walked over to him. “Dude. Did you count the till? We had a record day. Thirty percent more than the previous record. It’s a harmless story. And a profitable story. Believe that.”
Much later that night, under a half moon in a cloudless sky, Jake was starting at the ceiling of the camper, restless and unable to sleep. He decided to take a walk. He passed through a long row of food stands and crossed the midway toward the rides, accompanied by the white noise of the countryside: crickets and a distant barking dog. As he entered the area with the rides, he was walking along grass worn flat by the racing feet of the area’s children.
He saw a ride that spun children around in top hats, and he saw bumper cars decorated like racers. One ride had huge hairy spider legs to lift capsules of shrieking children into the air. The Ferris wheel cars were decorated like surreys with the fringe on top, and the fringe was swaying in the night breeze.
It wasn’t enough, apparently, for a kid to be tossed around at high speeds, to enjoy the thrill of the weightlessness, the riskless danger. There had to be something placed on top of it, a story or a theme. It didn’t even have to make sense.
He wondered for a moment why things were this way, but the question was its own answer. Things were that way because people responded. And if people responded, then there must be some kind of deep-seated truth to it, some kind of archetypal marker, and therefore, he thought, in some way it had to be righteous.
Jake walked back to their wagon. He found a sharpie in one of the drawers. Dragging the squeaking pen over the back door, he drew a white flag at eye level and tossed the marker in a trash barrel.
Jake made sure Dan got to the wagon first the next day, and when Jake arrived they both fell wordlessly into their morning prep routine.
The remainder of the summer was the same story pulled on a long string. It turned out that having the Valley Forge Fries Wagon was like having an ATM you towed from town to town. Dan joked that they were earning “Mafia Cash.”
They agreed on the next two steps: expansion and staffing. Where once they had only wanted to make enough money to last the summer or until they found a real job, they were now driven by a new goal: turning Valley Forge Fries into a business and getting some other poor fuckers into the wagon.
They were moving quickly. They had bought a second wagon and were outfitting it between festivals. They had prepared an extensive graphic prospectus (selling both the myth and the food) and presented it to three banks in their area, two of which were considering financing. And they had made plans to go to the World Food Festival in Chicago that November, once the Apple Butter and Maple Syrup Festival seasons came to an end.
After that, they planned to take their earnings and fly to Florida for the winter, managing the burgeoning empire remotely. “This time,” Dan said, “it will just be The Epic Bender.”
Good fortune was so prevalent that when the Food Network called, it hardly seemed remarkable. They had a camera crew in the Northeast, and they wanted to get footage for a segment on Valley Forge Fries.
“After one summer in the fucking wagon,” Dan said. “We are going to get very big.”
Jake put his hands behind his head and took a deep breath. They had been racing along on a thrill ride, and the landmarks and the roads and everything save the direction they were headed were just a colorful blur. Now everything was slowing and he could see what kind of neighborhood they were in.
“We need to think about what we’re going to say,” he said.
“They’ll be expecting what was in the paper,” said Dan. "They wouldn't be coming otherwise."
“Maybe you should do the interview,” said Jake.
“I see I have a silent partner. You are such a pussy.”
“We could be humiliated.”
“No risk, no reward. You are with me, right? The restaurants, the extra wagons, the winter-long vacation in Florida. You are with me.”
Jake did not say anything.
“Good,” said Dan. “Just sit there while I deliver early retirement.”
Dan opened a cabinet where a bottle of Jack Daniels was hiding. He poured a shot into two plastic Coke cups and handed one to Jake. “Carny champagne,” he said. He raised his glass and fired off the cannon sound effect. “Cheers.”
Jake downed the shot. “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
When the segment aired, it did not stray even once from the script Dan had developed. Despite Jake's fears, the Food Network brought no desire for investigation to the story, preferring instead to please like cotton candy. It might just be, Jake thought, that everyone loved a good lie.
What happened next shocked even Dan. The lines at the wagon the next day were three times longer than before.
Prior to the Food Network, their bankers had been treating Jake and Dan as garden-variety pleaders, moving at a languid pace. Now, the boys were at a meeting in Manhattan with a room full of lawyers and reams of paper spread across an oak conference table.
The papers outlined a package that would scatter Valley Forge Frywagons across the country as if they were falling from the wind. There would be franchising and financing and advertising. A PR firm would be hired to help place stories in papers and television and on blogs. Everything was trademarked, copyrighted, and registered, and the enterprise was to be governed by a corporate entity, Le Tamborin Inc.
The meeting finished, Jake and Dan were in Jake’s car racing back to Vermont. Over every hill and around every bend was a combine churning through a wheat field, leaving behind a trailing cloud of flying brown dust. “When we come this way again in two days,” Dan said, “the entire thing will be signed and done.”
Jake loosened his grip on the steering wheel and felt the car grip the road. “The entire thing. Signed and done,” he said.
As they passed an old stone Church with a tiny cemetery on the side, they burst into cheers.
Their financial success had allowed them to return the camper and stay in a motel room. That night, Jake was on the Internet looking at pictures of homes in Florida and Quebec, just now allowing thoughts of wintering in Naples and summering in Gaspe to enter his mind. His email chirped with an alert from Google. Someone, somewhere on the web had mentioned Valley Forge Fries.
When he clicked the link, time stopped. It was a blog that he had never heard of, called Storming the Dartmouth, and its headline read: “Heretics Besmirch Memory of George Washington.”
“I was attending our county Apple Butter Festival last week when I encountered a food booth with a huge line of people. The booth was called “Valley Forge Fries.” Honest to god, the line was longer than any other booth. Readers of this blog know that I am a total geek for the American Revolution, so I decided to get in line.
“As I stood in the line, I started to talk to the people around me. They all said they were in line because they had read somewhere that George Washington and the colonial troops had eaten Valley Forge Fries at Valley Forge. I swear to God, these idiots actually thought this.
“They handed me a newspaper, with a story about this food. If you ever think the media is really out to protect us you can fucking forget it, because they swallowed (sorry!) this whole smelly deal.
“I started to tell the people in line what a bunch of bullshit it was. I mean, honest to god, if there was any food left the troops had already seized it weeks ago. Further, there were 12,000 troops at Valley Forge. How much food could this asshole carry? And he’s making gravy in the dead of winter? I have read the journals of 7 different soldiers who were at Valley Forge. Not one mentioned this. Why do you suppose that is? This is total fucking bullshit, excuse my French. It should be called the Valley Forge Lies.
“Oh, speaking of French, when I got to the front of the line, all they were serving was poutine. I had some in Montreal two years ago and it gave me the runs.”
“We’ve been exposed,” Jake said.
“On the internet.”
“Fine by me. Mine is bigger than yours.”
“No, asshole. This guy has figured us out. He calls it Valley Forge Lies.”
“See, now that’s clever. Maybe he could be our writer.”
“We are fucked.”
“Who broke this bombshell again?”
“It’s on a blog.”
“A blog? No!”
“Yeah, it’s called Storming the Dartmouth. He’s a revolutionary war expert.”
“Just checking, has he weighed in on the cherry tree story? Where does he stand on selling furniture on President’s Day.”
“This is always how it starts.”
“It’s how something starts but it is also how nothing starts.”
“You are a living fortune cookie.”
“Jake. We’re dealing with business people. There’s no morality. Hell, we will probably get to join their private club when they find out we made the whole thing up.”
“Which we did.”
“Which I did, Jake. Which I did. And you have been happy to split the proceeds of prevarication.”
To that there was nothing Jake could say.
“Trust me," said Dan. "For once, turn off that fire hose brain of yours, have a drink and get some rest. It’s going to be fine.”
Dan continued. “You only hear about the times when it goes crazy. You don’t hear about the million other times it dies alone and unheard.”
There was a minute of silence between them. Jake walked to the window and looked out across the parking lot. There were lights on in some of the motel rooms and cars were moving on the street, people going where they were going and doing what they were doing.
Perhaps Dan was right. Perhaps they would be safe, hidden in the strobe of America's attention.
Dan spoke again. “What do you call a blogger when his girlfriend leaves him?”
“My partner,” Jake said. “A sassy man.”
The next morning they headed to the festival grounds and began to open up the wagon. Jake had slept fitfully. Twice he snuck the laptop into the bathroom while Dan was still sleeping. It was all quiet on the Google Front. Storming the Dartmouth did not appear to be getting any traction. Surviving the night gave Jake comfort.
Dan was whistling a nonsense song into the chilled fall air. Jake drew in a full breath. He could smell a fire burning, maybe leaves, off somewhere in the hills. He busied himself with their prep work.
He didn’t know how long it had been when he looked up again. He peered down the midway to the front gate, where a group of round women were paying their way in. They were wearing long denim skirts and lumpy sweaters. Their hair was generally bunned.
Jake watched as they toddled down the midway without apparent purpose and then they stopped and looked around.
One of them pointed at the Valley Forge Fries booth. And then they all pointed.
“I suppose it is too much to hope that they have been craving poutine,” Jake said.
Dan looked up. The women walked over until they were ten feet in front of the wagon.
“This is the place, girls. Daughters of the American Revolution! Mount up!”
From a garbage bag they pulled a stack of handmade signs, lettered in red and blue school paint. They said things like “Defilers of the Revolution” and “Heretics, Heresy” and “Gen. Washington is not for sale.”
Dan called out to them. “What is going on here?”
“We know what you’re up to, mister.”
“What are we up to?”
“You’re lying about our founding fathers. Shame! Shame!”
“Where did you ladies see that?” Jake asked.
The woman stuck her chin out. “We saw it on Facebook.” She turned and began to march in front of the wagon.
A second woman glared at Jake and Dan. “And later today, she’s going on Sean Hannity.”
Dan headed out of the wagon and walked over to the women. “Ladies,” he said, “I’m sure there is a misunderstanding. Can we talk?”
There was a pause while the women looked at each other until someone delegated herself to be the envoy.
“Did you say that this French food was once served at Valley Forge?”
“French-Canadian, actually,” said Jake from the wagon.
“Be quiet,” said Dan. “Yes, we did.”
“Then there’s no misunderstanding, you are defiling the founding fathers.”
“The misunderstanding,” Dan said, “is that we never meant to defile anyone. It's just a story about a product. It happens all the time. Can't you just think of it as an homage to the Revolution—to resourcefulness, comradery…community, really.”
“Homage. Sounds like more French.”
“The French, ma'am, were our allies.”
“Don’t confuse the issue,” the woman said.
“Trust me. I’m not the one confusing the issue.” The woman glared at Dan. He continued. “Who’s been harmed? Just tell me that. Who has been harmed?”
“We are Daughters of the American Revolution. I am descended directly from Ethan Stockbridge, who was at the Battle of Saratoga. We are the keepers of the principles of the Revolution. And that's what has been harmed. This country could use a little bit of Revolutionary wisdom.”
The women then began to shuffle around in a circle, chanting and waving their signs.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to try some? On the house? On the wagon?” He smiled weakly.
That night, he and Jake held an emergency strategy meeting, the creaky chanting of the women repeating in their heads. They hadn’t heard the Hannity segment, but they had gotten some emails and it had not gone well. A congressman had called in promising to introduce the Valley Forge Heritage Protection Act. They were beginning to get media calls for comment.
“What did we do that every other two-faced marketer with a black spot on his soul didn’t already fucking do? What about Betty Crocker?” Dan asked.
“Betty Crocker has a black spot on her soul?”
“She had no soul at all. She was a complete lie! Who ever fucked Betty Crocker?”
“I give up. The Marlboro man?”
“This is not a joke. Orville Redenbacher appeared on popcorn commercials when he had been dead for 10 years. For whom? For whom did that tweedy bow-tied professor speak for? Con Agra foods! He was probably dead before they even bought his name.”
“Is that our official response?”
“They probably believe Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Haven’t any of these people ever been to a magic show? Fuck it. I'm going to go on the show and talk sense to Hannity."
“We just have to admit we were wrong. That's what makes it all go away,” Jake said.
"And what, change the name again?"
"No, keep the name and create a revolutionary war scholarship or something. Donate some proceeds to the Valley Forge Historical Society.”
Dan locked his eyes on Jake. “We just have to ride it out. They’ll get bored. Or the public will. Or the media will. We don’t sustain outrage over things that matter. Why would we over something as stupid as this?”
“We told a lie about something the culture holds sacred.”
“This is a culture of lies. Lies are the rivers and the wind. Based on past performance, people are thrilled--absolutely thrilled--to believe whatever lie is told to them. They come running to be lied to. They love lies so much that they cling to them even when the truth comes back around.
“Most of what people think they know about the Revolution isn’t true anyway. We told a frivolous lie, it was just for fun—for entertainment, for marketing. We lied about nothing. And that’s what I am going to tell Sean Hannity.”
“Please just ask for forgiveness."
“I did nothing to be forgiven for.”
There was a long silence. Jake spoke next. “We lied about the wrong thing. That's all.”
Winter passed and spring came. The issue did move off the blogs and the papers, and there was a new outrage every day or so.
In Vermont, Jake walked up to a large garage outside of Burlington. Scraping the last remnants of unmelted snow from the stoop, he unlocked the door. The garage had been closed for months, and a strong chill surged from the door when he opened it.
He stood and looked at the dusty, cement floor that stretched to the other wall, reflecting squares of morning light from the windows. There was a small office to the left, and Jake entered it; above the metal desk, he hung the beret sign from the poutine wagon.
He went to his truck and found a ladder, and he placed it against the front of the building. Climbing to the top, he mounted a sign that hung perpendicular to the wall. Next to a paintbrush, it said “The Great Vermont Sign Company.”
He came down the ladder and looked up. “This is where it all begins,” he said. He snapped a picture of the sign and texted it to Dan. “Today’s the day,” it said. “I was my first customer.”
When Dan received the text, he was sitting in his office overlooking Central Park. On his wall was a framed picture of a newspaper that ran the morning after his television appearance. The headline read “Hannity Crushes Local Businessmen.”
Within two weeks of the broadcast, a major advertising agency had called Dan. They were impressed by the “strategic positioning skills” he had displayed with Valley Forge Fries. They hired him--with the understanding they he would apply the same creative skill to less sacred American myths.
They sold the wagon to a group of band boosters from Essex County, who only asked that they remove the signage. They wanted to keep the American flags, though, and the cannon sound effect was just plain fun.