A heated online debate followed.

By Tim Nelson
February 13, 2019

No fast food chain is more synonymous with the place it comes from than In-N-Out. Menu-inspired phrases like “double-double animal style” form the backbone of a uniquely Californian dialect, and tourists make westward pilgrimages to enjoy the burgers they can’t find back home. In short, In-N-Out is something that both belongs to California and showcases who they are (culinarily, at least) to the outside world.

That’s why a recent proclamation from the paper of record in the Golden State’s largest city ignited a French fry firestorm of this week. In his “official” power rankings of fast food french fries, L.A. Times food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson put In-N-Out’s fries dead last behind 18 superior sets of fries from other chains.

While granting that the fries are at least fresh, Peterson describes In-N-Out fries as “bland, crumbly little matchsticks that aren’t improved by any amount of ketchup, salt, cheese, or salad dressing you want to add to them.”

In his ruminations on the subject, he points out that our cultural fascination of In-N-Out may have more to do with a certain Californian mystique than any real culinary qualities. “Why can’t In-N-Out make better fries? The answer is that they likely could, but don’t need to, because we're in love with dreamy California car culture, palm trees and red-and-white tiles, and romantic sense-memory associated with their overrated burger.”

As is the case with pretty much any opinion these days, the controversial rankings were greeted by online outrage. Everyone from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the intern responsible for posting the L.A. Times’ tweet went to bat for In-N-Out. The latter even followed up by posting her own rankings, which placed In-N-Out alone at the top of the list.

Frank Shyong, who works on the L.A. Times’ metro desk, used his disagreement with Peterson’s take as a teachable moment about  the sociology of the modern internet.

But like other examples of courageous, Pulitzer-worthy journalistic stance, Peterson spoke for the Californians who were afraid to admit publicly what they knew to be true. The replies to the initial tweet and others bouncing around the internet show a surprising number of Californians defending his take and the integrity of the L.A. Times.  

But even the greatest detractors will admit that In-N-Out fries can be salvaged—if you know what you’re doing.

For what it’s worth, my dalliances with In-N-Out as a lifelong resident of the Northeast have all been underwhelming, probably because West Coast expats always hyped up the experience before every trip. Peterson’s illuminating journalism is an important reminder that In-N-Out isn’t some monolith that every Californian worships, but a flawed—yet fiercely treasured—regional fast food restaurant like many others. For that, he deserves our thanks—and some better fries.

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