The Origin of French Fries: Are They French?

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The French Fry, that innocuous sounding name for potatoes deep-fried in oil and served without fail at all American fast food joints, are probably not even French after all. Everyone the world over is familiar with the snack and with the name, even if they do not call it that themselves. It might be one of the most well-known American foods that a person can find, despite the fact that the origins of the fried potatoes are not exactly American. 

But then where did they come from? Who invented the French fry? Why do they have that particular name? What are the controversies surrounding this food item and the name that it carries?

Fried potatoes of various kinds are the favored foods of many cultures. The British have their thick cut chips while the French have their Parisian steak fries. Canada’s poutine, with its cheese curds, can be as controversial as the Belgian fries served with mayonnaise. 

And certainly, there can be no forgetting the American fries which are an irreplaceable part of so many meals. However all of these versions of the fried potato came to exist, there can only be one beginning. Let’s find out the true origin of French fries.

What is a French Fry?

French fries, which are called by various names throughout the world, are essentially fried potatoes that probably originated in either Belgium or France. French fries are made by cutting potatoes into long, even strips and then frying them. 

Deep frying potatoes in oil or even hot fat is the usual method of preparation but they can also be baked in an oven or prepared by convection in an air fryer, which is a slightly healthier way of making them instead of the deep fried version.

When served hot, French fries are crispy yet somehow soft potatoey goodness. They are a versatile side and can be served alongside sandwiches, burgers, and a variety of other things. They can be found in all kinds of restaurants and eateries around the world, whether that be pubs and diners or fast food joints or chip chops in the United Kingdom. 

Seasoned with salt and a variety of optional spices, French fries can be served with a bunch of condiments, which differ from place to place depending on which country you are in.

What Can You Serve Them With?

According to which country you were born in, you will have your French fried potatoes served with ketchup or mayonnaise or some other condiment. While Americans are fond of their French fries with ketchup, the Belgians serve it with mayonnaise and the British with fish and curry sauce or vinegar of all things! 

East Asians may serve their French fries with soy sauce or chili sauce for a kick of spice. Canadians love their poutine, with French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Chili cheese fries have an elaborate topping of chili con carne and queso sauce.

That, of course, is to say nothing of the hamburgers and sandwiches which would be deemed incomplete meals without some thinly cut, crispy French fries on the side. French fries have become an integral side dish for meals of grilled steak, fried chicken, and fried fish of various kinds. You can never have too much fried food and one without the other does not feel right.   

The Origin of French Fries

What exactly is the origin of the French fry? Who was the first person to think up deep fried potatoes? This is a question that might never be answered since French fries were almost certainly a product of street cooking, without any reliable originators. What we do know is that probably the first variation of the French fry was the Francophone ‘pomme frites’ or ‘fried potato.’ According to historians, French fries may just as easily have been a Belgian dish as a French dish.

Historians claim potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish and so the Spanish might have had their own version of the fried potato. As it is well known that the potato originally grew in the ‘New World’ or the Americas, this is hardly surprising. Historian Paul Ilegems, the curator of the Frietmuseum or ‘Fries Museum’ in Bruges, Belgium, points out that deep frying is a traditional part of Mediterranean cuisine which lends credence to the idea that originally the Spanish introduced the concept of ‘French fries.’ 

The patatas bravas of Spain, with their irregularly cut home-style fries, might be the oldest version of French fries that we have, although of course it does not much resemble the ones that we are familiar with today.

Belgian historian of food, Pierre Leqluercq noted that the first recorded mention of French fries is in a Parisian book in 1775. He traced the history of French fries and found the first recipe of what is a modern day French fry in a French cookbook from 1795, La cuisinière républicaine.

It was these Parisian fries that inspired Frederic Krieger, a musician from Bavaria who learned how to make these fries in Paris, to take the recipe to Belgium. Once there, he opened his own business and began to sell fries under the name ‘la pomme de terre frite à l’instar de Paris’ which translated to ‘Paris-style fried potatoes.’

Parmentier and Potatoes

An interesting fact about the French and potatoes is that the humble vegetable was regarded with deep suspicion at first. Europeans were convinced that potatoes brought diseases and might even be poisonous. They were aware of how potatoes might go green and thought that this not only tasted bitter but could even harm a person if they ate it. If not for the efforts of agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, potatoes may not have become popular in France for a very long time. 

Parmentier came across the potato as a Prussian prisoner and was determined to popularize it among his people. He planted a potato patch, hired soldiers to guard it for the drama factor, and then allowed people to ‘steal’ his tasty potatoes so they could get a liking for the precious goods. By the end of the 18th century, the potato had become one of the most desired vegetables in France. While it was not fried potatoes that Parmentier was advocating, that dish eventually grew out of his efforts.

Are They Actually Belgian?

However, the question of who Invented french fries is a hotly disputed topic between the Belgians and the French. Belgium has even petitioned UNESCO so that the French fry may be recognised as a prominent part of Belgian cultural heritage. Many Belgians insist that the name ‘French fry’ is a misnomer, coming about because the wider world cannot differentiate between the different Francophone cultures.

Some sources, including Belgian journalist Jo Gerard and chef Albert Verdeyen, claim that French fries originated in Belgium long before it came to France. Folklore states they were invented in the Meuse Valley by the poor villagers living there. The citizens of this area were particularly fond of frying fish caught from the Meuse River. In 1680, during one very cold winter, the Meuse River froze over. Not being able to access the small fish that they caught from the river and fried, the people instead cut potatoes into strips and fried them in oil. And thus, the ‘French fry’ was born.

This story has been disputed by Leqlercq, who asserted first that potatoes were not introduced in the area until the 1730s and so French fries could not have been discovered until later. Further, he added that villagers and peasants would not have had the means to deep fry potatoes in oil or fat as that would have been much too expensive and they might have been lightly sauteed at best. Fat of any kind would not have been wasted on frying since it was difficult to obtain and was generally consumed by ordinary people raw on the bread or on soups and stews.

Whatever the origins may have been, if you want to eat good fries while in the Francophone region, you should head to Belgium rather than France in this day and age. Made with quality Dutch potatoes, most French fries in Belgium are fried in beef tallow rather than oil, and are considered a main dish in themselves rather than simply a side. In Belgium, French fries are the star player and not just as added garnish to a plate of hamburgers or sandwiches.

Why Are They Called French Fries in America?

Ironically enough, the Americans are actually believed to have popularized the fried potatoes by the name French fries from their interactions with Belgians and not the French. French fried potatoes was how they referred to the preparation when the first came across it during World War I. 

American soldiers arriving in Belgium during the war assumed that the dish was French since that was the language that the Belgian army spoke in general, not just the French soldiers. Thus, they called the dish French Fries. It is not clear how much of this story is the truth because there are indications that it was called French fries in English even before the American soldiers arrived on Europe’s shores. The term had steadily become more popular even in America in cookbooks and magazines in the 1890s, but it is unclear whether the French fries referred to therein were the fries as we know them today or the thin, round shaped fries that we now know as chips.

And What Do the Europeans Have to Say About It?

The Europeans have differing opinions about this name. While some French proudly claim the French fry as their own and insist that the name is authentic, it is clear that many Belgians do not agree. They attribute the name to the cultural hegemony exercised by the French in the area. 

Still, the Belgians have not made any move to have the name changed, only for their part in its history to be acknowledged. Indeed, the name ‘French fries’ has become so well-known in food history, become popular among cultures throughout the world, and has spawned such lively debates that it would be futile and foolish to do away with it.

The United Kingdom, who pride themselves on always being different from both the United States as well as the other European nations, do not call the fries French fries at all but chips. This is an example that most of Britain’s colonies follow as well, from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa. British chips are slightly different from what we know as French fries, their cut being thicker. Thinner fries may be referred to as skinny fries. And what Americans refer to as potato chips are called crisps by the denizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Fried Potatoes By Any Other Name

While the general story is that it was the American soldiers during World War I who popularized the name of ‘French fries,’ are there any other names that the fries could have been known by? ‘French fried’ by the 20th century was a synonym in the United States for ‘deep fried’ and was used in the case of fried onions and chicken as well. 

But what were the other options? What else could French fries just as easily be known as, if this name had not become so iconic? And would the French fry by any other name taste just as good?

Pommes Frites

Pommes frites, ‘pommes’ meaning ‘apple’ and ‘frite’ meaning ‘fries’ is the name given to French fries in the French language. Why apple, you may ask. There is no knowing why that particular word came to be associated with the dish but it is universally the name for French fries in Belgium and France. They are the national snack there and are often served as steak-frites, alongside steak, in France. In Belgium, they are sold in shops called friteries.

Another name for French fries in France is pomme Pont-Neuf. The reason for this is that it was believed that French fries were first prepared and sold by cart vendors on the Pont Neuf Bridge in Paris. This was in the 1780s, just before the French Revolution broke out. It is also one reason that the name of the person who created this dish will perhaps never be known, since it was common street food. While the potatoes sold then may not have been exactly the French fries that we know today, this is the most widely accepted version of the origin story of French fries.

Maybe They Should Be Called Francophone Fries

For those who do not adhere to the belief that the fries were of French origin, another name is preferable. According to Albert Verdeyen, a chef and author of the book Carrement Frites, meaning ‘Squarely Fries,’ they are actually Francophone Fries and not French Fries. 

Even if the origins of the French fry are murky, what is certainly clear is that no country consumes French fries in the way Belgium does. After all, Belgium is the only country in the world to have an entire museum devoted to French fries. The difference between the Belgians and the rest of the world is that they love their fries just by themselves, with absolutely no need for other sides to distract from the greatness of potatoes double fried in fat to crispy perfection.

Statistics have shown that Belgium consumes the largest amount of French fries in the world, a third more than the US does. They also have a huge number of French fry vendors, known as fritkots. There are 5000 vendors in Belgium, which given their small population, is a whopping number indeed. They might come close to being the national dish of Belgium.

If Francophone fries was not such a mouthful and French fries not so established a name, perhaps we should change the name if only to give the Belgians their due for their passion for the topic.

What Does Thomas Jefferson Have to Say?

Thomas Jefferson, that American President who was also a connoisseur of good food, had a dinner at the White House in 1802 and served potatoes served in the ‘French manner.’ This meant cutting potatoes into thin slices and shallow frying them. This is the recipe that has survived and has been preserved in Mary Randolph’s book, The Virginia House-Wife, from 1824. As per this recipe, the fries were probably not the long thin strips as we know them today but thin rounds of potatoes.

If this story is true, and it does seem to be, it would mean that Jefferson learned of the dish while he was in France as American Minister to France from 1784 to 1789. While there, James Hemming, his slave, trained as a chef and learned many of what would eventually become Amercian classics, from French fries and vanilla ice cream to macaroni and cheese. As such, the idea of French fries was known in the US long before the first world war and discredits the popular theory of how the French fries came to have that name. 

Jefferson called his French fries ‘pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches’ which is an elaborate description rather than a name of a dish, meaning ‘potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings.’ Again, why choose the name ‘pommes’ instead of ‘patate’ which means ‘potato’ in French? There is no answer for that.

Still, French fries only became popular in the 1900s. Perhaps the general public was not enamored by the dish as their president was. It was first called ‘French fried potatoes’ before the name was shortened to ‘French frieds’ or ‘French fries.’

Freedom Fries?

During a brief period of history, French fries were also known by the name freedom fries in the United States. This only happened for a handful of years and it seems that most of the population was not on board with this idea since the name French fries was back in use quickly enough.

The idea to rename the French fries was the brainchild of Republican politician from Ohio Bob Ney. The reason behind this was supposed to be patriotic in nature, since France had refused to support America’s invasion of Iraq. Ney was the Chairman of the House Administration Committee and this committee had authority over House cafeterias. He declared that French fries and French toast should both be renamed Freedom fries and Freedom toast, in view of France turning its back on America. Ney’s ally in this was Walter B. Jones Jr.

When Ney left the committee in July 2006, the names were changed back. The ultra patriotic yet ultimately silly gesture didn’t have too many fans.

French Fries the World Over

Wherever the French fry may have originated, it is America who popularized it throughout the world. Thanks to American fast food joints and franchises, everyone the world over knows about and eats French fries. Yes, there are certainly local versions. Different cultures prefer different condiments with their fries and may even be downright horrified by the other versions. 

Potatoes are a favorite vegetable for many cultures. Given the profusion of dishes they appear in, one wonders what these cuisines did before they discovered potatoes. And even with the same dish, as with French fries, there are so many different ways in which potatoes are prepared, cooked, and served.

Variations

While French fries is the name given to the thinly cut strips of potato, fried in oil or fat, there are versions in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, that are slightly more thickly cut but still prepared in much the same way that French fries are. Called chips in Britain and its former colonies (different from the American potato chips) these are usually served with fried fish.

Thick cut fries called steak fries are well-known in both the United States as well as in France, where they serve as a starchy, hearty side dish to a plate of grilled steak. In direct opposition to this are the shoestring fries, which are much more finely cut than the regular French fries. These are often served topped with a blue cheese dressing. 

For the health conscious, there are oven fries or air fryer fries, which are cut, dried and prepared in the oven or air fryer, foregoing the copious amounts of oil that deep frying them requires.

Another fun version of the dish is curly fries. Also called crinkle cut fries or even waffle fries, these are also French in origin, from the pommes gaufrettes. Sliced with a mandolin in a criss-cross pattern, it has much more surface area than regular French fries do. This allows it to fry better and be crispier in texture.

How to Best Consume Them: Differences of Opinion

How French fries are eaten is quite a point of controversy. Different cultures have different ways of serving the dish and each undoubtedly thinks theirs is the best way. Let’s begin with Belgium, which consumes more of the fries than any other country. The Belgian capital has hundreds of vendors selling fries every day. Served in a paper cone, they eat the fries with mayonnaise. At times, they might eat the fries topped with a fried egg or even with cooked mussels.

Canadians serve a dish called poutine, which is a plate full of French fries and cheese curds, topped with brown gravy. Where the Canadians came up with this recipe is not quite clear, but by all accounts it is delicious. This is a classic dish from Quebec.

A popular American favorite is chili cheese fries, a dish consisting of fries smothered in spicy chili and melted cheese. Australia adds a flavoring item called chicken salt to their fries. South Korea even eats their fries with honey and butter.

Fries are also a regular side dish eaten in various South American countries. Peru serves a dish called salchipapas which features beef sausages, fries, hot peppers, ketchup, and mayo. Chile’s chorrillana tops the fries with sliced sausages, fried eggs, and fried onions. Interestingly enough, Germany also serves their fries with eggs, as currywurst, which features bratwurst, a ketchup-based sauce and curry powder.

Fish and Chips by the British is a well-known and classic favorite. Once considered the national dish of England, they serve their thick-cut fries (known as chips) with battered and fried fish and an array of condiments, from vinegar to tartar sauce to mushy peas. Fish and chips shops in England even serve a unique type of sandwich with fries within a buttered bread roll, called a chip butty.

In the Mediterranean countries, you can find fries wrapped in pita bread, whether that be in a Greek gyro or a Lebanese shawarma on the street corner. In Italy, some pizza shops even sell pizzas topped with French fries.

American Fast Food Chains

No American fast food chain is complete without fries. Here, they cut their potatoes into thin strips and cover them in sugar solution. The sugar solution is what gives McDonald’s and Burger King’s fries that signature golden color inside and out, as double frying them would usually tend to color the fries much darker.

There is no denying America’s stamp on this food item, no matter its origins. Most people all over the world associate French fries with the US. The average American eats about 29 pounds of them on a yearly basis.

The J. R. Simplot Company is the one in the United States who successfully commercialized frozen fries in the 1940s. In 1967, McDonald’s reached out to them to supply McDonald’s with frozen fries. They provide frozen fries both for commercial produce in the food services sector and for home cooking, about 90 and 10 percent respectively. 

Frozen French Fries

McCain Foods, the world’s largest producer of frozen potato products, is headquartered in the town of Florenceville, New Brunswick, Canada. The town calls itself the French fry capital of the world due to McCain’s production of fries. It also happens to be the home of a museum dedicated to potatoes called Potato World. 

Co-founded by brothers Harrison McCain and Wallace McCain in 1957, they have outstripped their competition and they send their products all over the world. They have manufacturing facilities in six continents. Their main competitors are J. R. Simplot Company and Lamb Weston Holdings, both American.

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