Depending on whether you like them thin and greasy or thick and meaty, the two best purveyors of french fries in Rockford are Uncle Nick’s Gyros on East State Street and Altamore’s Ristorante on North Main. Neither the mythical Uncle Nick nor the very real Alberto Altamore, I’m happy to report, has fallen prey to pro-war correctness and renamed his potatoes “freedom fries.” While the Rockford contingent of David Frum’s “unpatriotic conservatives”might be expected to continue munching happily away on the “surrender monkey” spuds, an amazing number of patriotic Rockfordians also seem willing to set aside their deepest convictions when it comes time to get their fix of salty carbohydrates.
Rockford and, indeed, the entire Upper Midwest have been through this before. (I was going to write “Plus ça change,” but I wouldn’t want to give the girly-boys at National Review any more ammunition.) Despite having the largest population of Germans in the United States, the Upper Midwest fell prey to anti-German hysteria in World War I and World War II, and hundreds of streets, buildings, and even towns were renamed. Here in Rockford, Berlin Avenue became Rockford Avenue; Berlin, Michigan, 20 miles east of my hometown, became Marne. (Rumor has it that the Marne city council is now considering punishing the French by adopting the moniker “Kuwait City,” in honor of our heroic ally in the Coalition of the Willing.)
Liberty cabbage, hot dogs, Salisbury steak—such semantic games should be embarrassing for adults, though they might make a mildly amusing pastime for children if real people weren’t affected by them. But unfortunately, they are, as the proprietor of one acclaimed Rockford restaurant can attest.
On March 13, the local Gannett paper published an article in its “Life&Style” section, listing a number of things that would have to be eliminated in order to “to get rid of the French influence in America.” Now, both Tom Fleming and I have been very critical of the Rockford Register Star in these pages over the years, but, in this case, I do think that the article, entitled “Au Revoir,” was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The trouble, however, is that the folks—um, liberty people—at the news tower wouldn’t know good humor if it bit them on the derrière. (One problem with being a “patriotic conservative” is that it unnecessarily limits your vocabulary.) At best, portions of the article were mildly amusing; most people, however, found it somewhat confusing, especially since it seemed to call for a boycott against specific Rockford businesses, most notably Rockford’s premier (read: only) French restaurant, Café Patou.
Combine a poor sense of humor with a politically charged issue, throw in a dash of war, and nothing good is likely to come of it. Philippe Forcioli, a French emigré and former chef at Harry’s Bar in New York, opened Café Patou 11 years ago. A longtime advertiser in the Register Star, he was “stunned that my restaurant, which helps support local families, was targeted for extinction simply because I came here from France with some of my favorite recipes,” as he wrote in a column in the local weekly, the Rock River Times. (The Register Star published the column on the same day, March 19.) He correctly predicted that “Life&Style” editor Jennie Pollock “will try to excuse this as a misguided attempt at humor” but noted that “it is hard to laugh when you are turned into a target.”
Near the end of his column, Forcioli prophetically noted that “it is irresponsible for Pollock to publish a piece that encourages hate crimes as the number of attacks against French-Americans increases due to tension between governments.” But Pollock and her fellow editors at the Register Star stubbornly stood their ground.
Indeed, in a forum on the Register Star’s website, Pollock proved her inability even to comprehend that she might have done something wrong, writing “I am surprised at today’s response. In writing the ‘Au revoir’ piece, the Life&Style staff was not calling for a ban on French products. Such a movement is ridiculous and a waste of time. But everyone is entitled to an opinion.” A simple apology and an acknowledgment that the article wasn’t very funny might have gone a long way toward smoothing things over with a longtime advertiser, and it might have helped prevent what happened next.
Around 5:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 23, a few hours after Tom Fleming and Rock River Times editor Frank Schier had demonstrated their lack of patriotism by dining at Café Patou, someone apparently decided to prove his patriotism by smash-ing a window, breaking into the restaurant, and pouring a solvent of some kind on several cases of wine, the bar, the wood floor, and the front desk. Alerted by his alarm company, Forcioli discovered the vandalism and called the police. Nothing seems to have been stolen, and the police are investigating the incident as a possible “hate crime.”
According to the Rock River Times, it took a crew of ten people almost 24 hours to return Café Patou to the point where it could be reopened, though further repairs are needed. Forcioli estimates that the restaurant suffered $10,000 worth of damage.
In the wake of the incident, you might have expected the Register Star to issue at least a simple statement decrying the action (even if the paper could not actually apologize, for fear of opening itself up to a lawsuit). Instead, asked by the Rock River Times whether she felt any responsibility for the incident, executive editor Linda Grist Cunningham merely replied, “No, and I have no further comment.”
When the war in Iraq is finally over and some modicum of sanity has returned to public discourse, FOX News loudmouth Bill O’Reilly and Christopher Ruddy of NewsMax.com (the chief sponsors of the boycott of France) should join Cunningham and Pollock in beating their breasts and proclaiming “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Of course, if they should find that too Christian for their taste, I’m sure that Philippe would settle for a heartfelt Pardonnez-moi.