Book Review: El Dorado Freddy’s by Danny Caine and Tara Wray

El Dorado Freddy’s: Chain Restaurants in Poems and Photographs, as a title, only scratches at the surface of the treasures within.

Donuts in a Parking Lot, Merriam, KS, 2018

El Dorado Freddy’s: Chain Restaurants in Poems and Photographs, as a title, only scratches at the surface of the treasures within. It is described as a literary yet goofy book about American food and identity, and tackles such weighty subjects as Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and the conundrum of Pizza Hut cheese. Poet Danny Caine crafts the poems in the book, which started out initially as restaurant review poems, which in turn found a following via Twitter and independent poetry publishers.

The photographer in the author duo, Tara Wray, has notably worked on the acclaimed project: Too Tired for Sunshine which “documented the beauty, darkness, and absurdity of everyday life, as seen through the lens of my own struggles with depression”. Wray received an overwhelming wave of support and she has used her platform to help people with depression by offering a place for collective creative expression. She also hopes to reduce the stigma of mental illness and open a dialogue about depression and art with her site, Too Tired Project, and the Instagram account Too Tired Project. By way of connection through one of the aforementioned independent publishers, Wray contacted Caine initially to ask if the two could “hit as many chains as possible” and make a fast food project together — photos and verse.

The result is El Dorado Freddy’s: a poetry and photography book that tackles themes in prose like the enduring love of a young married couple, the trials and stress of the pending birth of their first child — and the enduring love of chicken nuggets while driving from one destination to another. Or the codependent actions of wolfing down a burger at Freddy’s in El Dorado, Kansas while your partner sleeps. Then, play some great Tom Petty songs on the radio; hoping they don’t get angry before getting home. It’s that good.

My own disdain for the swamp of fast food restaurants in the midwest is balanced my my long-lost adolescent craving for White Castle hamburgers. You shouldn’t have to explain these things, so perhaps it is best done through poetry and poetic images. The intangible is made real in ink and paper — who can argue with the best description of a dinner outing and relationship served together as in Caine’s Olive Garden:

Nights that felt unlimited like salad n’ breadsticks:
mom’s car, a cashed bag boy paycheck, another exit,
another country. Parking lot Italy, no passport needed,
just a flashing buzzer. This was all we knew of fancy.
We just couldn’t swing that many dates where dinner
cost more than ten bucks each. I see them winking
when they discuss this place, even when they try
to be kind. Okay, fine, they say. The salad is actually good.
Of course the salad is good, it’s America’s national dish.
I don’t have time for their winks because if I don’t
leave now, the line will be too long when I get there.
Good thing the pasta, like the salad, like us, never ends.

Caine’s work has a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek appeal that is sly enough to fool the people who believe Popeye’s chicken could be considered healthy, and funny enough to make the rest of us laugh, or groan, to ourselves. Wray’s images in El Dorado Freddy’s are understated in their Steven Shore-esque ability to capture the essence of a meal when we’d rather not admit to, but cannot stop from embracing. A plate of hash browns, eggs and toast at the Waffle House in Bonner Springs is either the best thing ever, and/or the grossest display of “truck stop food” you’ve ever seen. It’s complicated.

Peek Inside the Kitchen, Topeka, KS, 2018
Drive-Thru With Broken Sign, Manhattan, KS, 2018
Delivery Bags, De Soto, KS, 2018
Drive-Thru, Lawrence, KS, 2018

El Dorado Freddy’s: Chain Restaurants in Poems and Photographs
By Danny Caine and Tara Wray, © 2020
ISBN: 9871948742627
6in x 9in, 122 pages

Danny Caine is the author of Continental Breakfast (Mason Jar Press, 2019), Uncle Harold’s Maxwell House Haggadah (Etchings Press, 2017), and How to Resist Amazon and Why (Microcosm Publishing, 2019). His poetry has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and Mid-American Review. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where he owns Raven Book Store.

Tara Wray is a photographer based in Vermont and the author of Too Tired for Sunshine (Yoffy Press 2018). Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Vice, BURN Magazine, and the Huffington Post, and on National Public Radio. She has also directed two feature-length documentaries: Manhattan, Kansas and Cartoon College.

El Dorado Freddy’s: Chain Restaurants in Poems and Photographs is published by Belt Publishing. Copies are available through their website.

Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.