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Not-so-French Fries: the History of Fried Potatoes

Not-so-French Fries: the History of Fried Potatoes

While North Americans refer to thinly-sliced fried potatoes as “French fries" their actual country of origin remains something of a mystery.

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There is little better than a pile of salted French fries. I once drove five hours, from Connecticut to Baltimore, just to get a bucket of Thrasher’s Fries, covered in Old Bay Seasoning (and they did sell it by the bucket). Potatoes are the ultimate comfort food: human beings are programmed to crave salt, and who can resist the siren song of the deep fryer? Just about anything tastes good when fried, from squid to Mars bars. While North Americans refer to thinly-sliced fried potatoes as “French fries,” their actual country of origin remains something of a mystery.

At an 1802 dinner at the White House, then-US president Thomas Jefferson consumed “potatoes served in the French manner,” as he wrote, though history has not passed down to us what exactly he meant by this. The oldest written recipe for fries as we know them today came in 1856, in Cookery for Maids of All Work by E. Warren, a cookbook for “the hired help” which instructs as follows: “French Fried Potatoes. Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, add a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown color; drain.” Just how these fries became known as “French” is the key question, for their origins are most likely Belgian.

The story goes that, back in the late 17th century, residents of what was then called the Spanish Netherlands, the valley around the Meuse River in modern-day Belgium, had the habit of frying up potatoes when they could not catch fish to fry instead. As journalist Jo Gerard wrote, “When the river was frozen and fishing became hazardous, they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer…” However this account, which Gerard claims comes from a 1781 manuscript, is somewhat inaccurate. Potatoes did not arrive in the region until circa 1735, as they were a crop of the New World and, like turkeys, had to be imported to European soil and dinner plates. The tradition Gerard describes may be correct, but, it could not date back to the 1680s, as he suggested. Another origin story dates to the First World War, when British and American soldiers enjoyed fries at local establishments along the border between France and Belgium, where much of the worst fighting took place. The soldiers weren’t sure exactly which country they were in, but, everyone spoke French, so they called the potatoes French fries. They were technically in Belgium, but, who’s counting, right? The Belgians are, as a matter of fact, and would quite like credit where it’s due. The Dutch, after all, used to call them Vlaamse frieten, or Flemish fries, which would make them firmly Belgian. We have the Belgians to thank for the variety of wonderful sauces that can accompany your fries (see the Ghent food article for a more thorough explanation), which go far beyond ketchup and mayonnaise.

Origins aside, the very best fries are fried twice, and the second round in the fryer should be within an hour or so of the first—otherwise the fries can be mushy or wilted. The tastiest fries are said to be fried in a combination of ox and horse fat, though this may not appeal to the vegetarians among us. Even a lousy portion of fries is not so bad, if dipped in enough ketchup, mayonnaise, or other condiments. One of the reasons why fries are particularly appealing in frozen or fast-food form, is that they are kind of a pain to make at home. Not everyone has a deep-fryer, and even the fryers built for home use can be unwieldy and make the house smell like cooking oil for ages after the fries themselves are but a memory. It is also something of a turn-off to see, first-hand, the amount of unhealthy oil used to fry up fries—our advanced system of denial allows us to “forget” that fried foods are bad for you if we place an order and pick up a portion that someone else, off in a contained kitchen, has fried for us. You can make a pretty good portion of fries that are not fried in a fryer.

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