History of French Fries: Are They Really French?

french fries

French Fries. Image: Wikipedia


July 13th is National French Fry Day. While no one knows who began this celebration, placing it on July 13 is significant in that the important French holiday is the next day, July 14, Bastille Day.


Did they originate in France, why are they called that, who else enjoys them, and what is their history?


History of French Fries

Some French people might call the delectable potato confection Belgian Fries, and there is evidence that 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 story, which is more likely, 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. While they brought the name home with them, the term existed long before that in English.

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 this a hot potato. Eating potatoes for food was popularized in France by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who wore potato blossoms in their buttonholes and hair.


From the New World

Potatoes are not native to Europe but came from the New World when Spanish conquistadors brought them back from Peru in the early 15th century. This is why J.R.R. Tolkien, at the suggestion of his careful readers, removed them from his mid-60s versions of his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books, but the subsequent Peter Jackson films did not.



Multi-colored and multi-shaped potatoes. Image: Wikipedia


What’s In a Name: French Fries

You can find these at a plethora of places that provide provender under names like these: Frituur, Frietkot, or Friterie.

In France, they’re called frites from pommes frites, or “potato fries.” Potato in French is pomme de terre, which literally means “ground apple.” But everyone calls them just frites. I learned that the hard way.


carrousel du louvre

Le Carrousel du Louvre. Image: Unibail-Romamco-Westfield

On one of my first speaking trips to Paris, I was ordering lunch at a burger shop in the food court of the Carrousel du Louvre, beneath the Museum, and saw the word frites on the menu. I asked:

“Qu est ce que ça veut dire ‘frites’?” (What does ‘frites,’ mean?)

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

jeffersonfries copy

Jefferson with Fries, by Nutrition Lady. Image: Trillist

Between the time he worked on the Declaration of Independence and when he became the Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson spent time in Paris as the Minister to France (1785-1789.) During one White House dinner in 1802, he served “potatoes served in the French manner.”

In the 1940s, the J.R. Simplot Company commercialized frozen French fries, and in 1967, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame contracted the company to supply them with them. Since the 1960s, most fries in the US have been produced from frozen Russet potatoes, which have been blanched or at least air-dried industrially.

The popular In-N-Out Burger, in contrast, still serves fresh-cut fries.


Celebration of French Fries

How should one observe this holiday? A trip to the most popular American purveyors of this delicacy 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, 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” way:


Biggest fries

Fast food French fries, ranked (Lucas Kwan Peterson / Stephen Lurvey), Los Angeles Times. Image: LA Times



Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Subscribe to have future articles delivered to your email. If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment.

About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.