Whose Fries are these anyway?

Text By : Madhulika Dash

Is the “French” in French fries, a misnomer? 

If ever there would be a list of enduring food, French fries would make it into the top 10. Let’s face it: it is the most lovable food in the world culinary vocabulary. Yes there are high-calories and oily (if not made well that is), but nothing spells comfort in bold like a boxful of golden strips that are crisp on the outside and lush, gooey inside. And what makes them even more enduring is the versatility – you can have it anyway you like: toss it in spice, drizzle truffle oil, bathe in ketchup or curry and even blanket with cheese.  

One of the many reasons that the benchmark of making that fantastic French fries hasn’t changed in so many years. Irrespective of the region it is served in, the mark of good French fries is that they are evenly cut and double fried – of course with the right choice of potatoes, which according to Cathy Kellner Diaz (VP, International Marketing, CKE Restaurants Limited that owns the Carl’s Jr), “American Russet potatoes, due to their consistency, starch content, and firm texture.” 

But ever wondered how did the name French fries originate? After all, thanks to discovery of frying (Egypt and India practiced the art since 2500 BC) and potatoes in 1524 by conquering Spaniards (2000 years after the first spud was spotted in Peru), spuds have remained a produce of immense fascination that has resulted to it being baked, steamed, grilled and even fried. In fact, thinly sliced potato roundels were part of port station’s meal at many harbours in the Silk Route.  

Origin of Fried Potatoes 

Fascinatingly however, despite of the existence of both, it wasn’t till the 17th century that fried potatoes made its debut in the culinary scene in Belgium. As popular foodlore goes, frying potatoes were more an innovation than a discovery. Tale has it that back in late 1600s, between the cities of Liège and Dinant, a small food market developed on the periphery of Meuse river alongside the fish market. Traders and locals who would often come to buy fresh stocks would stop by these shacks to have a meal of fried fish. But in winters, the river would freeze. 

Just to sustain business, the hawkers began frying potatoes instead. The early iterations were said to be thick square blocks of potatoes that weren’t a success, but a few hits and misses and the long finger fries were born – though it is said that the early fries were a lot shorter to ones popular today. Another story states that French fries were first invented in Namur in the late 1600s and were called Frites (made from frying). However, French fries were first introduced to the world during the World War I, when American soldiers deployed in Belgium would feast on them and call then French fries – they even took a few packets back home.  

So how come French entered Belgium? Well, it was the language there and a possible colonial link too. Belgium even has a museum dedicated to fries or as the locals call, frietkotten. 

The Real claim 

However this claim is disputed by the French who see themselves as the creator of the French fries. According to French historians, fried potatoes were invented by Parisian chefs under the bridges along the Seine River and hence called Frites Pont-Neuf. What lends credence to French claim to fries paternity is the fact that fries or frites as they were called back then was introduced to the US by Thomas Jefferson, history’s legendary fries’ addict, who first sampled French fries in Paris – and even famously took the Parisians chefs to develop more versions to the classic. It is under Jefferson’s patronage that Frites Pont-Neuf made its debut at the White House dinner in 1802, with the menu reading it as "potatoes served in the French manner." Even Charles Dickens in his famous novel A Tale Of Two Cities refers to French fries as “Husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”. 

Curiously, fries didn’t pick on the adjective “French” immediately though. It was a while before “fries made in French style” was shortened to French fries – and the likelihood of it being was around the early 19th century, by which fries had made their mark as the indisputably popular side dish to stakes, fish and burgers. Till then, even as the fries made their commercial debut in Joseph Maline French-inspired menu in 1864 in London, they were still called chips or fries. As a matter of fact, French fries are still referred to as chips or crisps in Britain and for Belgians it is still a main dish.

The French Connect 

So what led to the French connection? A possible explanation to the connection, says Diaz, is “the prep and frying technique, which is decisively French. To evenly cook a batch of fries to perfection, the two things that are essential is the shape, which is long thin strips that has a good surface area; and two, is the frying technique, where the fries are first cooked on low temperature that activates the starch, blanch to allow it to set, and then flashed fried on high that gives them that crunch.” 

The idea is to create the shock value that will while cook the potato strips thoroughly will capture enough moisture to leave the fries with a crisp exterior without much oil sitting on it. That, in fact, is, adds Diaz, “is the litmus test for good French fries, which then can be dressed with salt and toppings of your choice: be it wasabi, Ranch dressing or Santa Fe sauce with jalapenos.”

Image Courtesy: Carl's Jr.