Inventions Ahead of Their Time: French Fries

Is there anything better than biting into a fresh, salty, crispy french fry? Whether served alongside a burger or dipped into your milkshake, there’s no denying their deep-fried deliciousness. But where did this iconic side dish come from, and how did it become the beloved treat we know today? The original recipe is probably older than you think…

When you think of making french fries, you probably envision thin potato strips cooking in a restaurant’s industrial-sized fryer filled with bubbling hot oil. While this iconic side-dish staple is most often associated with fast food and “American-style” restaurants, french fries were not originally created in the US. And, although they seem like a modern food, the first french fries were likely invented over 250 years ago.

Belgian Fries?

The history of french fries is a bit of a culinary conundrum. While the name suggests a French origin, some food historians argue that the story begins in Belgium. One theory involves potatoes that were brought to Europe from Peru by Spanish forces in the late 17th century. At the time, Spain controlled what is now known as Belgium, so the citizens of the area were among the first to be introduced to the vegetable.

The nearby River Meuse served as an abundant source of fish, and locals would fry small ones to go along with their meals. However, when the river froze over in the winter, they began frying thin strips of potatoes instead. As the story goes, the villagers fed these fried potato sticks to soldiers while France was at war, and soon after, they became popular around the world.

However, some historians doubt the plausibility of this theory. They suggest that potatoes were not introduced to that specific area until decades later. Plus, at the time, oil and fat were too expensive and difficult to find in large quantities for frying food.

Paris Fries?

As you might guess, the French also stake a claim to the invention of french fries. According to popular lore, they were sold by street vendors in the late 18th century near Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. This suggests there was no single identifiable creator, but that it was likely the invention of a Parisian peddler.

According to food historian Pierre Leqluercq, the first recorded mention of “french fries” was found in a Parisian book from 1775, and the first recipe was found in the 1795 cookbook La cuisinière républicaine. Soon therafter, a notable chef named Frederic Krieger began traveling through Belgium cooking “Paris-style fried potatoes.”

Francophone Fries?

Ironically, it’s believed that Americans were largely responsible for popularizing the dish by the name of “french fries.” One theory suggests that during WWI, American soldiers in Belgium discovered the food and referred to it as such because the local natives spoke French.

Another tale involves French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. When potatoes were originally brought to France from the New World, they were met with much skepticism. In an attempt to popularize the new vegetable, he held extravagant dinner parties where potatoes were served cooked in a variety of different ways. Potentially amongst his guests was President Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have encountered “potatoes served in the French manner” during his time as an ambassador in France and returned home with a recipe that would make its rounds throughout America.

American Fries?

While french fried potatoes became popular several centuries ago, they may not have originally looked or tasted quite the same as they do today. The potatoes were likely sliced into chunks or rounds rather than “sticks” and only cooked once. The term “frenching” simply refers to a method of food preparation in which ingredients are cut in even sizes so that all sides are exposed to heat, such as in an oven or fryer. The first known recipe for the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, double-fried potatoes we love today did not appear until the early 20th century, in the Belgian book Traité d’économie domestique et d’hygiène.

In an interesting twist, modern American fast food chains are often credited with popularizing french fries on a global scale. During WWII, meat shortages resulted in restaurants searching for an inexpensive – yet filling – side dish, and french fries fit the bill. As these chains grew, more and more countries around the world began to enjoy the crispy, deep-fried potatoes we know so well. Today, nearly one third of all potatoes grown in the United States become frozen french fries, and the average American eats about 40 pounds of fries each year.

Whether you prefer Belgian-style with a dollop of mayo or classic American-style with ketchup, one thing is for certain – french fries have rightfully earned their place in the culinary hall of fame. While the exact recipe may have evolved over time, fried potatoes have fittingly remained a favorite dish in many cultures for centuries.

If you enjoyed this invention story, you might also like the ones about potato chips, cornflakes, and Heinz.

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