HISTORY OF FRENCH FRIES: NATIONAL FRENCH FRY DAY
Today is National French Fry Day. While no one knows who began this celebration, placing it on July 13 is significant because the important French holiday is the next day, July 14, for Bastille Day.
Origin of French Fries
Some French people might call the delectable potato confection Belgian Fries, and there is evidence that, in fact, they may have originated there.
One story is that the phrase “French Fried Potatoes” first appeared in English in 1856 in the cookbook Cookery for Maids of All Work by E. Warren.
Another more likely story is that they were first called “French Fries” by American soldiers stationed in Belgium during World War I. After first tasting them, the Yanks called them “French” fries as it was the official language of their fellow Belgian soldiers.
A Belgian journalist claims that a 1781 family manuscript tells of deep-fried potatoes in the Spanish-Netherlands (now Belgium) before the 1680s. The fact that potatoes did not arrive in that area until around 1735 makes handling this a hot potato.
The French Angle on French Fries and Potatoes
The Spanish conquistadors brought the potato back to Europe from the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Peru in the early 15th century. But it didn’t catch on in Spain. It was popularly thought that the potato greens were poisonous, potatoes belonged to the same toxic family as the deadly nightshade, and many thought that eating them caused leprosy. It wasn’t mentioned as a food in the Bible, which made it suspect. Instead, it was fed to farm animals.
But Frederick the Great of Prussia promoted the cultivation of potatoes to combat famine. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the Prussians captured a French Army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. He ate potatoes for the first time during his lengthy captivity, and his health thrived. He returned to France after the war with a mission to convince the French to add potatoes to their diet. In 1772 the Academy of Besancon awarded him 1st prize for “the study of food substances that could mitigate the calamities of famine.”
Parmentier was convinced by Ben Franklin, an early convert to potatoes in Paris, to organize an elegant potato dinner for prominent Parisians, featuring a potato dish in each course. He won the support of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at a royal banquet. He gave them potatoes flowers: he convinced the king to put one in his button hole and Marie to include some in her wig.
Parmentier has a subway station named after him on the Paris Metro Line 3 in the 11th Arrondissement of Paris.
Because potatoes are not native to Europe, J.R.R. Tolkien, at the suggestion of his careful readers who understood Middle-earth to be “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea,” removed them from his mid-60s versions of his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books, but the movies did not.
What’s In a Name: French Fries
You can find these at a plethora of places that provide provender under names like Frituur, Frietkot, or Friterie.
In France, they’re called frites from pommes frites, or “potato fries.” Potato in French is pomme de terre, which means “apple of the earth.” But everyone calls them just frites.
On one of my first trips to Paris, I was ordering lunch at a burger shop in Carousel du Louvre and saw the word frites on the menu. I asked:
“Qu est ce que ça veut dire ‘frites’?” (What does it mean: ‘frites,’?)
The answer I got back, in plain English
In Belgium: “Belgian fries,” though to distinguish them, they are often twice-fried. The first bath is called blanching.
In England: “Chips” as in “fish and chips.” Sometimes more thickly cut. You can get them in shops wrapped in newspaper.
In India: finger chips.
Condiments for French Fries
- Ketchup: the most popular dipping sauce in the U.S.
- Ranch Dressing: surprisingly, the second most popular in the U.S.
- Mayonnaise: a favorite in continental Europe
- Dijon Mustard: for the last 40 years, a popular sauce in France
- Aioli: another French favorite, drizzled upon the potato delicacies
- Vinegar: especially malt vinegar, is most favored in England and the Commonwealth
French Fries in America
When he returned to America, he brought back that food whose name just rolls off the tongue” pommes de terre frites a cru en petites tranches (small slices of raw potato, deep-fried.) During one White House dinner in 1802; he served “potatoes served in the French manner.”
Since then, the name was shortened to “French-fried potatoes,” though it didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the 20th century.
Celebration of French Fries
How should one observe this holiday? A trip to this delicacy’s most famous American purveyors would include McDonald’s, Chic-fil-A, or Burger King. Or Carl’s Jr, Five Guys, Arby’s, Dairy Queen, Steak N Shake, Shake Shack, Jack in the Box, Sonic, KFC, and In-N-Out.
Here’s how the Los Angeles Times food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson ranked America’s fries in a manner that he called
“the authoritative, totally not subjective, incontrovertibly definitive and 100% correct”:
P.S. In 2016, Belgium submitted a request for the recognition of the “fries culture” to UNESCO (U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a World Heritage Food. They are still waiting. But Americans will continue to call them French Fries.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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