Matthew Oleson Trendsetter
Matthew Oleson achieves two things, one much less obvious than the other. Oleson owns CheesyMac Deli, Bull Street, LaGrange, now in its fourth month.
First, he holds mac-and-cheese aloft, off the assembly line of culinary mediocrity and into high regard, as if to say it is comfort, not comfort food only. Metaphor, not synonym. This is novel notion and fresh philosophy. Each menu item has its own memorable, signature label; each a distillate of creative imagination. Oleson purloins Walter Benjamin: “Of all the ways of acquiring books, the one considered most reputable is to write them.” Gastronomy, in this instance, is the moral equivalent of literature. His compositions, by his own account, are products of many 2 AM undistracted moments.
Second, he casts a vote for a Lafayette Community Brand. This is, I suspect, news to him, but the menu offering of “The Marquis: French Dip with Roast Beef and Swiss on a Hoagie,” links directly to and identifies with “The Spirit of Lafayette.” Brand in this case is theme with muscle.
“The Spirit of Lafayette” is swashbuckling adventure: nineteen year old defies his King, sails to America; commands the right wing at the Battle of Yorktown; writes the Declaration of the Rights of Man, leading up to the Reign of Terror; imprisoned for five years on account of his radical stand for liberty; and wildly celebrated on his thirteen month Farewell Tour of America, 1824-1825.
“The Spirit of Lafayette,” of vastly greater moment, stands for our highest ideals: Respect and Reciprocity; Liberty, Equality, and Justice; Courage and Gratitude. Mr. Oleson taps into this legacy.
Forging a Lafayette Community Brand is incremental. “The Marquis” at CheesyMac. “Lafayette House Salad” at Karvelas. Perhaps, at some point, napkins with a Lafayette story, bordered by the silhouette of his statue. A “Lafayette LaGrange Flambé” for dessert. Then comes the Music, the Theater, and the Crafts, all in “The Spirit of Lafayette.”
Michael Crichton, who graduated from Harvard with his medical degree in hand and instead decided to write “Jurassic Park” and never looked back, lamented that America wanted to be entertained, only. This is, of course, untrue. America also wants to eat, and perhaps in the process it can be inspired and informed. Entertainment and eating, near synonymous, need not be vacuous, as Mr. Oleson proves. The names to his culinary delicacies spike the imagination. This is an idea with valuable consequence.
The Lafayette Community Brand has foundations, brick by brick, in single item names on the menu, but should expand to a dedicated section on the menu, say “Lafayette Desserts,” where one would find the Lafayette LaGrange Flambé, call it The Cockade; the three layered (red-white-blue) Lafayette LaGrange Macaroon, call it The Adrienne; and the Lafayette LaGrange crème brulee, call it the La Victoire.
Like “Shakespeare on Tap” years ago, where a condensed performance of “Macbeth” at a tavern opposite the Capitol in Washington, D.C., attracted the attentions of the New York Times, so it would be with this grassroots campaign to brand “In The Spirit of Lafayette.”
The “undistracted moment” is a critical operative element, not necessarily relegated to 2 AM, although this is perfectly permissible if one’s spouse allows, as Mr. Oleson’s generously does. This is a decentralized work of civic imagination, sure to attract notice from far off places, and it will take creativity and innovation to make it happen.
Mr. Oleson is a trendsetter.