No matter where you are in the world, chances are you’ll be able to find a heaping serving of french fries whether it be poutine in Canada, chips in England, being stuffed inside gyros in Greece, or crispy thin strips from the iconic golden arches seen in 100 countries
But how did these fried potato strips come to be? I dove in to find out.
Potatoes first made an appearance in Europe in the 16th century after Jimenez de Quesada, a Spanish conquistador, stumbled upon the root in Columbia. He brought it back to Spain, and the potato proceeded to make its way through Europe.
The leap from spud to fry is a little less certain.
I assumed fries came from Belgium after my time spent in Brussels and Bruges. There were dozens of “Pommes Frites” stands serving out piping hot fries, often drenched in mayo (not my condiment of choice), and you better believe I ate my fair share.
However, upon diving in, it turns out that France is claiming to be the founder of the fry. You know I always love a little drama…
Let’s take a look at both sides of the story.
Story #1: Belgium
Belgium claims that the humble beginnings of the french fry go back to the late 1600s on the banks of the Muese river. Villagers would frequently fry up fish, but when the river was frozen over in the winter and no fish could be found, the Belgians starting frying up the potatoes instead.
“French” wasn’t put in front of “fry” until WWI when Americans discovered the delicious snack. French is the national language of Belgium, so the soldiers deemed the dish “French fry.” Seems like a pretty American thing to do if you ask me. The soldiers brought the dish back to the United States, and we can give credit to White Castle in 1916 for being the first fast food joint to offer of the option of, “do you want a side of fries with that?”
Story #2: France
Pierre Leclerq, a French historian, argues that this is impossible. For starters, the time line doesn’t match up. Potatoes weren’t even in Belgium by the late 1600s! Secondly, fat was a precious commodity, and it isn’t plausible to think that villagers would waste it on frying up potatoes.
Rather, we can credit french fries to the French!
But it wasn’t love at first bite when potatoes made an appearance in France. The people believed that the dastardly tater caused diseases, including leprosy. So they put the vegetable to use as hog feed instead of a side dish. Parliament wasn’t keen on dealing with a leprosy pandemic spudding from potatoes, and human consumption was outlawed in 1748.
Antoine-Augustine Paramentier, a French medical officer, became the champion for potatoes after his time as a prisoner in Prussia. He was forced to eat them, but he didn’t get sick and he didn’t contract leprosy. Eureka!!!! Upon returning to France, he vouched for potatoes across the country, resulting in consumption becoming legal in 1772. However, potatoes didn’t really take off until famine struck in 1785. When choosing between eating potatoes and death, the answer was pretty obvious. From there, fried strips of potatoes known as “frites” became a popular street food sold by push-cart vendors.
Records also indicate that french fries made their debut in the US far before WWI.
Thomas Jefferson served as minister to France from 1784 to 1789, and he fell in love with frites. In fact, he loved them so much that he had his slave, James Heming, train as a chef to master the dish among other French favorites. Jefferson brought frites back to the United States with him, as evident in a transcribed cook book.
Which story is right?
The short answer is that no one really knows.
We know for a fact that potatoes had some drama in France and that while Jefferson did bring the dish to American, it didn’t become mainstream until WWI. We also know that both cultures love their fries (although I do have to say I have seen FAR more “frites” stalls in Belgium than in France….)
Hard evidence suggests that the origins lie in France, but it isn’t outlandish to think that more than one person had the idea of cooking sliced potatoes in oil. Regardless, french fries would have never exploded in popularity if it hadn’t been for American soldiers in Belgium. Introducing a delicious, fattening, highly profitable item into a hungry capitalistic market is a surefire recipe for a wild success.
At the end of the day there IS a winner:
French fries are a timeless food item that can accommodate all ages, races, income brackets and taste palettes.
I don’t know about you… but it’s time to go get some fries!