Some might say, when it comes to French fries, that it’s all in the name.
But…what if it isn’t?
Golden, crispy French fries have been a staple of the culinary world for centuries. They pair perfectly with a hamburger, plate of chicken tenders, and even steak.
But where we can trace the origins of a lot of dishes quite easily–biscuits and gravy to the American South, Pizza to Italy, etc– French fries, despite having French in the name, actually have a much more mysterious origin. And with that mysterious origin, comes a seriously interesting history.
The Many Names of the French Fry
Before we get into french fries history, there’s something that we need to get out of the way. Here in America, we might call our favorite little potato sticks French fries, but in France, they actually call them something entirely different.
In France, French fries have always been known as pomme frites, which simply translates to “fried potatoes”. Actually, there are a lot of different names for French fries around the world.
Some notable French fry monikers include:
- Frites (Belgian Dutch)- Frites translates to fries in Dutch.
- Chips (British English)- While chips is still an English word, in the United States, it usually used to refer to the much thinner and crispy fried potato product that comes in bags. In Great Britain, the word chips is used for French fries.
- Papas Fritas (Spanish)- Like pommes frites, papas fritas translates to fried potatoes.
The Origin of French Fries
There are plenty of fun stories about where French fries first popped into existence, but we actually do have a decent understanding of when they might have first burst onto the culinary scene.
There is an argument to be made that French fries might be of Chilean origin, with the first mention of anything resembling French fries being a passing note of “papas fritas” by Chilean writer Francisco Núñez de Pineda. But as we know, papas fritas translates to fried potatoes, so this mention could be any sort of similar dish.
There is another possible birth place for French fries: Spain. One professor, and curator of French fry museum “Fritesmuseum” in Bruges, Belgium, thinks that St. Teresa of Avila might have been the first person to fry up some frites.
With that being said, the real two contenders for the inventors of French fries go to France and Belgium.
In a way, both locations are correct, if we’re going by the most agreed upon point of origin. One early mention of the creation of French fries was in 1680s Belgium, but it was a part of Belgium that spoke French at the time. Chef, Albert Verdeyen, wh also justauthoredook on the history of the frenFh fry, said it best,
.“Americans call it a French fry, but it’s not a French fry, it’s a Francophone fry.”
If French fries aren’t Belgian, then they probably popped up much later in history, during the 1800s.
There is proof for both of these claims, so let’s dive a little deeper into them!
The Story of the First French Fry in Belgium
There’s little doubt that slivered potatoes were being fried and eaten in other parts of the world before 1680, but those fries weren’t quite French fries.
The story of the first French fry starts in a Belgian town called Namur, which was part of Francophone Belgium. This means that instead of Dutch, they spoke French.
Namur was situated on the River Meuse, and it was from these waters where the villagers would often catch tiny fish and fry them. These fried fish were a large part of their diet, and something that the villagers were accustomed to.
So when, during one particularly cold winter in 1680, the River Meuse froze over, the villagers were left without their favorite fried fish to enjoy. Instead, they looked for an alternative, and landed on potatoes.
Cut thin and fried, the potatoes were an adequate replacement for the fish, and just like that, the French fry was born.
At the time, they weren’t called French fries just yet. The legend of the Belgian French fry suggests that they gained their famous name when American soldiers entered the area during World War I. Even though they were in Belgium, the locals still spoke French, so the soldiers mistakenly named the frites French fries, and the name just stuck.
The French Argument for the French Fry
Despite Belgium’s claim, some food historians are still insistent that French fries are indeed French. One such person is culinary historian Pierre Leclercq, who argues that the Belgian origin story is simply not plausible.
Leclercq argues that fat was too expensive for most people back then, and this alone makes the Belgian theory impossible. Instead, he is sure the French fries originated in France.
Despite his insistence about the French origin, Leclercq doesn’t think that there is some noble origin to the humble French fry. Instead, he thinks the fry was probably an invention of street vendors near the oldest bridge in Paris, Pont Neuf.
If French fries really were invented by a street vendor in the 18th century, there’s likely no way to ever track down the exact inventor. The identity of the first French fry chef might forever remain a mystery.
French Fries in America and Beyond
Another interesting fact about these salty little potato strips is that the first mention of them on American soil was actually a presidential shout out!
An early manuscript written by President Thomas Jerfferson recounts his experience eating a dish called ‘Pommes de terre frites en petites tranches’, which translates to ‘potatoes deep-fried raw, in small slices’. Sounds an awful lot like a French fry, doesn’t it?
No matter where the French fry comes from, the world has a seemingly never-ending affection for the salty snack. If there was ever any doubt of this, just remember this statistic: American’s alone consume more than 4.5 million pounds of French fries every year!
So while the history of the French fry might still be unknown, its popularity isn’t mysterious at all.
“Can Belgium claim ownership of the French fry?”
“In Belgium, frites aren’t small potatoes”