Sunday, July 25, 1999

Hungry? Or just looking for a freebie?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I don't feel well. It might be indigestion. I think I ate Inspector Gadget's hat. It was dark in the car, and I was desperately hungry.

        We were on the way home from a weekend trip with our granddaughter, the Amazing Rosie. When her mother, our daughter, was small, we selected our interstate dining based on the cleanliness of the restrooms. These days, most places have pretty good facilities, most of them with changing tables, some of them with toilet paper.

        And I don't care how much fast-food chains spend on their advertising, a burger is a burger. A nugget is a nugget. Grease is grease. The food is pretty much the same. Especially to kids.

Just showing off
        So, what separates the drive-through from the drive-by is the quality of their lagniappe. And what, you might reasonably inquire, is an lagniappe? Well, I am pleased that you asked, because I just learned myself and am always eager for the opportunity to show off.

        A lagniappe is a fancy foreign-esque word for a freebie. It's pronounced lan-YAP, but you can say it any way you want, because no one will know what you are talking about. For all they know, you are still discussing the restroom using some private family word for something that is too personal to really be discussing with strangers anyway.

        Or they might conclude you are merely a pretentious ass.

        My well-thumbed copy of Merriam Webster says lagniappe is “a small gift given a customer by a merchant at the time of purchase, something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.”

        In the restaurant biz, it used to mean maybe some salsa and corn chips, a stuffed clam “compliments of the chef” or exceptional bread. No big deal and still in the realm of food. Now, you never know what you'll find nestled next to your nuggets. Recently, we patronized Wendy's, where Rosie found a Johnny Bravo bowling game in her bag of food.

        I spent the rest of the trip trying to find the little Johnny-shaped bowling pins, which disappeared almost instantly into the crevice of the seat. Or maybe under the floor mat. We know right where the food is. It is still in the bag.

        The food is incidental.

Bait for bad movies
        The last time McDonald's offered up Teenie Beanies, they didn't even pretend that you came for the food. Many locations had separate tents installed in the parking lots where you could buy the Beanies separately. Adults used cell phones to coordinate purchases with friends.

        Now McDonald's is giving away eight toys that form a 15-inch Inspector Gadget. I do not have a cell phone, so I was unable to coordinate. We wound up with a torso and a bunch of arms. There was a hat, but as I mentioned, it has come up missing, and I fear for my gastrointestinal tract.

        I understand that it could have been worse. At least the hat was small, with no sharp edges. A Roselawn mother of three reported to the Enquirer's Cindy Kranz that her children came home from an expedition to Burger King with their grandmother toting Wild Wild West pens that write and fire arrows.

        “What's more,” Cindy writes, “the toys stirred children to want to see the movie, which is rated PG-13.” This raises the possibility that not only are we in danger of ingesting plastic action figures, but will be lured to bad movies as well.

        But the thing is, after a while you begin to feel like a patsy if you order food and that's all you get. Everybody else got a nearly naked Tarzan with their fries, and all you got was an extra packet of ketchup.

        Just last week, I found myself eating in a little restaurant, even though they did not give me anything except for a really good burger and a couple of napkins.

        I asked about their lagniappe, and the kid at the counter said it was down the hall and to the left.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at