French Fries Aren’t French? The Story Behind The Golden Fries
Image Credit: Where do French Fries actually come from? Image courtesy: Pexels

Who doesn’t love a bowl of French Fries? Literally everyone loves French Fries because they are the perfect blend of salty, crispy and umami. French Fries are also popular worldwide because they are made, traditionally, with potatoes—a veggie that is cheap, easy to grow, and very filling indeed. So, French Fries have now not only made it as one of the most popular snacks in countries like the USA, but also India. But did you know that your favourite golden-coloured, crunchy French Fries aren’t from the nation of France? 

French Fries: A Misleading Name?

Apart from the very name French Fries, you would naturally assume French Fries to have originated in France because the nation loves its potatoes and is known to create exceptional dishes with the humble veggie. This includes Dauphinoise, Gratin, Lyonnaise and Aligot or mash. The popularity of potatoes in French cuisine can be dated back to the sixteenth century when the veggie first travelled from Latin America to Europe. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette promoted potato cultivation and the inclusion of the veggie in every aspect of French cuisine throughout their reign. So, how could French Fries be anything but of French origin? 

Some historians suggest, however, that French Fries or Frites were actually invented in Belgium, not France. According to Belgian experts like Jo Gerard and Albert Verdeyen, the invention of French Fries by the Belgians is the stuff of folklore. They believe that the Belgians in the Meuse Valley used to catch fresh fish from the Meuse River and fry them for consumption. In 1680, the winter was so severe that the river froze and their source of fish was cut off. So, the Meuse Valley Belgians cut potatoes into strips and fried them in oil to give birth to French Fries. This origin story is so popular among Belgians that they have even petitioned the UNESCO to recognise French Fries as a prominent part of Belgian cuisine and culture. In fact, the Belgians believe that “French” Fries is a misnomer because the Americans who popularised them later could not differentiate between the various French-speaking cultures of Europe. 

The French Fries Argument

On the other side of the great French Fries origin story, there are other experts who believe that the dish was invented in France and taken to Belgium, where it was discovered by American soldiers during the Second World War. In fact, one of the most prominent arguments are made by a Belgian historian, Pierre Leqluercq. Leqluercq believes that the first record of French Fries can be traced back to a Parisian book in 1775, and the first French Fries recipe was found in a French cookbook, La Cuisinere Republicaine, in 1795. These Parisian French Fries inspired musician Frederic Kieger to take the recipe to Belgium, where he sold them under the name ‘la pomme de terre frite a l’instar de Paris’ (roughly translated to Paris-style fried potatoes). 

Leqluercq also argues that while potatoes were introduced to France in the 1560s, the vegetable was not brought to the Meuse Valley until the 1730s—so, the invention of French Fries by Belgian peasants are a myth rather than fact. He also adds that French Fries, since their invention, were deep fried in oil or fat, something that poor farmers might find too expensive to do. Instead, Leqluercq says, the French Fries the Belgian farmers supposedly made could have been shallow fried in fat or oil at best! 

How French Fries Conquered The World

The most popular story of how the French Fries travelled from France and Belgium—no matter which origin story you believe in—seems to be the one about American soldiers. Apparently, the soldiers deployed to Belgium came across French Fries, loved them, and took the recipe back to the US after the war was over in 1945. However, there is another story behind how French Fries made it to America. Many experts believe that Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, came across French Fries while serving as a minister to France between 1784 and 1789. Jefferson’s slave, James Heming, was trained as a chef while in France, and among the recipes the Jeffersons brought back was that of the French Fries. Many of Jefferson’s recipes did the rounds in his family, and the first record of French Fries in America comes from his relative, Mary Randolph’s book, The Virginia House-Wife, written in 1824.  

The pity is, despite this early start in America, French Fries did not become popular in that nation for at least another century. Expert Stuart Berg Flexner believes the general American public first came across French Fries in the 1870s, and the dish only started gaining popularity in the late 1920s. Until the 1920s, French Fries were more popularly known as French-fried potatoes in the US. It was only after the fast-food boom in the 1960s that French Fries truly became common and easily available. From there, as the fast-food sector travelled across the world, so did French Fries. From a dish originating in rural Belgium or the streets of Paris, French Fries became the famous side to American burgers—and that’s the form in which we Indians first came across French Fries.