Voyages in America
"Lift up your fork and let the adventure begin..."
We may be wired differently, you and I, but a number of thoughts came to mind when I found out that Denny's was rolling out a Hobbit-themed menu in America ahead of the movie's impending American release on December 14.
The Hobbit and Denny's are an extraordinarily odd fit. The gulf between each of them is simple mathematics. I know a lot of people who genuinely like the Lord of the Rings movies and are excited about the coming Hobbit trilogy (I am not in this group). I do not know anyone with a sincere word of praise for Denny's.
To me, Denny's always seemed to be a little more Big Momma's House 3 than J.R.R. Tolkien. And if I were to picture the characters from Tolkien's worlds dining, they'd probably be drinking some mulled wine from a goblet, slurping back hearty stew and maybe mixing it up by eating a lamb shank, clasping at the bony end, primitively tearing strips off it with their teeth.
It amused me to think of various scenarios where this campaign might have come together; did the two marketing heads drunkenly meet in an airport bar and get a little too hammered while waiting for a flight? Or is Denny's trying to cash in on the elusive fantasy roleplaying demographic?
Anyway, I had to go see.
I found myself stalking down a Denny's in downtown San Francisco at midday yesterday. It was sunny and the streets were packed with young professionals out for lunch. As I weaved through crowds I winced, contemplating whether Denny's might be unpleasantly full.
I didn't have much to worry about. This particularly cavernous Denny's eatery was at less than 10 per cent capacity.
My waiter seated me among a completely empty row of booths. I was a bit annoyed that I had to specifically request to be given the Hobbit menu, because this instantly made me feel like a colossal nerd (while also wondering about how much of a success this campaign had been so far).
The front of the menu depicted the sort of Hobbiton-type thing we've come to expect in the past decade: rolling green fields, a Hobbit home, lake and waterfall. This New Zealand/Middle Earth scenery is continued in the menu's middle-spread with a picturesque Southern Alps vista, complete with an old-timey Denny's placed in the midst of the mountains just in case anyone was questioning whether Hobbits could actually go to a real Denny's while on one of their long sojourns to throw jewellery into volcanoes.
Within the menu itself the wordplay employed was something to behold. It didn't come close to papering over just how huge the thematic stretch is in this synergy between Denny's and the Hobbit, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
"Gandalf's Gobble Melt" is just a toasted turkey sandwich, but "only a wizard could dream up of something this good". Patrons are implored to try the Seed Cake French Toast, "because who knew the adventure would be so sweet?"
The Hobbit Hole Breakfast, Frodo's Pot Roast Skillet and the Shire Sausage Skillet all share the same artery-clogging Denny's DNA, but are entrenched in Hobbit mythology because "Hobbits love comfort food". Short any really thematic tie to anything Tolkien-esque, Denny's is actively trying with this campaign to recast its penchant for stodgy food as a conscious, Hobbit-themed choice.
The biggest joy from my meal came through simply contemplating the absurdity of it all. You see, I've only seen the Lord of the Rings movies once but I'm pretty sure that there was no sausage factory in the Shire. Such a monstrosity would have probably drained a lot of the quaint romance from the Hobbits' world.
Bilbo's Berry Smoothie is listed on the menu, but I wonder, did Bilbo Baggins really enjoy his blended fruit treats in Middle Earth with nonfat yoghurt?
Likewise, the Lone-Lands Campfire Cookie Milkshake sells itself as the must-have accompaniment for any Middle Earthling with a quest to set out upon, but I'm not sure how enthusiastic Tolkien's characters really were about actively courting heart disease.
Of course, I ordered and ate, but by the time I'd yucked it up thinking about the menu, the entire experience was always going to go downhill from there.
I can vaguely remember a time as a much, much younger James when Denny's held a place in an imagined canon of true-blue Americana. It was somewhere we got to go as kids if we were really lucky. But then I came to America. Denny's restaurants tend to lurk in rundown commercial blocks and semi-industrial areas. The first one I ever encountered in the United States, outside of Monterey, California, was across the road from a pornographic magazine superstore.
I ordered the Shire Sausage Skillet, only out of a desire to avoid the burgers and maybe get something a little more Hobbit-ish. It was greasy and hot: a mess of soggy potatoes, diced capsicum, onion, sausage, melted cheese and egg served on a sizzling hot plate. The meal was serviceable, boring in its mediocrity and not particularly imaginative. I have no doubt it would have killed an actual Hobbit dead in its tracks.
It gave me some pause that the same movie we're using to throw a little gasoline on our national tourism industry, Denny's is using to hock cheap diner food.
The biggest mystery for me is who wins from this Denny's-Hobbit combination? What's in it for either party?
Is Peter Jackson just far enough out from a hit movie that his studio is looking to shore up the recognition of his new film? Or is Denny's in sore need of some new customers through its doors?
The answer probably is, I guess, a little from both column A and B, right?
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