It isn’t exactly health food: waffle or steak fries with cheese – usually mozzarella – and more brown sauce than you would find in a gravy boat at Thanksgiving. In addition to this, the dish comes with even more gravy for dipping – if you can manage to lift one of the soggy fries before it goes flaccid under the weight of the primary sauce and cheese.
Kevin Snow, a weight trainer who has spent all 21 years of his life in the small community of Basking Ridge, New Jersey says the dish makes up “at least your 2,000 calorie limit in one appetizer. If you are trying to maintain any sort of weight or care about the way you look whatsoever, they are the worst possible thing to put in your body.”
This notion doesn’t appear to have hurt the dish’s popularity much over the years. “Disco Fries,” as they are known, have survived prominently in New Jersey for the last couple of decades, after they first made the jump from nearby Quebec.
In Canada, the dish is called poutine. It first popped up on menus around Quebec in the late 1950s as soft cheese curds melted atop fries. Eventually, dark chicken gravy was added to the dish. Now, poutine is a fast food staple there, offered by chains like McDonald’s and Burger King on their Canadian menus. By the 1970s the dish made the leap over to the U.S., appearing particularly in New York and New Jersey, initially as an “off-menu” item with slight variations of the original.
Around the same time poutine wandered onto American plates, the kids coming back late from the New York discos had big appetites fired up from a night of drinking and dancing. Diners were, as always, open late and welcomed these hungry patrons in the early hours, serving them the greasiest comfort food on the menu – the messy, salty fat-soaked starch that would come to be known as “disco fries”.
The spread of this unhealthy late-night favorite halted and remained isolated to a relatively specific part of the country. Traveling outside of the Mid-Atlantic states, people might raise their eyebrows if you asked for a plate of “disco fries”, but at the Spinning Wheel Diner in East Lebanon, New Jersey, manager Tony Julian smiles and asks, “What kind?” The diner offers the original version as well as other incarnations with various types of cheese. The menu also features a near relative to the disco fries called “pizza fries,” which substitutes marinara sauce for gravy.
Manuel Garcia, one of the fry cooks in back at the Spinning Wheel, is amused by the interest in something that, to him, is as basic as hamburgers and hot dogs. It’s not even halfway through the week and he has already prepared 19 orders of the legendary “disco fries”. Mine will be order number 20.
Garcia tears into a bag of frozen steak fries – the kind that are five inches long and half an inch thick and still have the consistency of a baked potato when you bite into them. He pours these straight into a metal basket and dips them into hot oil, where they remain, sizzling, for three to four minutes. Garcia doesn’t use a timer; practice has given him an inherent sense of when the fries are perfectly crisped. When he thinks they are ready, he pulls the basket out by the handle, giving it a few shakes to release any excess oil and then quickly dumps the fries in a shallow metal serving platter. On top of the fries, Garcia ladles one generous cup of chicken gravy, made from the pan scrapings of other dishes on the menu. He distributes three slices of mozzarella cheese evenly on top of the fries and slides the platter under a broiler. After a minute or two, when the cheese has melted and begins to bubble, Garcia removes the platter and checks it to make sure that it has cooked evenly. He notes that patrons request varying levels of color on their melted cheese: some like it turning deep brown, some like it just barely melted. In this case, the dish is somewhere between.
He places the silver platter of cheesy fries on top of another plate and adds a ramekin with more gravy. Sliding the dish under the hot lamps of the service area, he dings a bell to call a waitress, and the “disco fries” embark on the second part of the their short life.
The fries arrive sticking out at random from a pile of gooey cheese. Within minutes, the dish has dissolved into a jumbled mess of indistinguishable wet starch and semi-hardened cheese; to select individual pieces one must inevitably submerge a finger or two into the muddy pile. Between figuring out how to deal with the messy factor and finding room in the stomach, finishing a plate of “disco fries” proves challenging.
Eating the dish is a mix of basic comforts: warm starch, gooey cheese, savory drippings; yet, like the disco era that crowned it, the experience of eating these fries is grounded by the creeping guilt that often follows good things in excess. It’s nothing that a root beer float or malted shake can’t fix.