What’s the origin of French fries?


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Dear Straight Dope: How did French fries get their name, and where did they originate? Benjamin Schultz

SDStaff Dex replies:

First, it’s important not to confuse French fry with French fly, better known as Spanish fly (cantharides). This is the kind of thing you want to get cleared up right away.

Rather than a quick two sentence answer, we’re going to start with the history of the potato and work our way forward. Be patient. The potato, of which Julia Child wrote, “Be it edible so humble …”

There is evidence that the potato was being cultivated in Peru and Bolivia, around 2,000 years ago. It was an unpromising plant, growing at high altitudes in South America. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, potatoes were “small, misshapen, and knobby tubers, of many colors, and a bitter taste.” There are many varieties of wild potato, some growing at altitudes as high as 13,000 feet (almost 4,000 meters). Some are almost frost-resistant and grow near the snowline. Wild potatoes are still eaten in South America, called “native potatoes” or papas criollas.

The first Europeans encountered the potato in 1537 in what is now Colombia. Spanish forces under Jimenez de Quesada came into a village — the natives had unaccountably fled — and found maize, beans, and little knobby tubers which they called “truffles.” They described these “truffles” as “of good flavor, a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for Spaniards.” Potatoes were brought to Spain and Italy during the 1550s. They were small and bitter, and not a popular food. That variety did not grow well in the warm Spanish and Italian climates. Only through careful breeding were larger, less bitter, more adaptable potatoes grown. Today, the Seed Savers Exchange offers over 650 varieties of potatoes.

The word potato comes from the Haitian word “batata” which refers to a variety of sweet potatoes. The word came into Spanish as “patata.” When the later variants (called papas by the natives) were found, they were also called “patata,” and the word made its way into English as potato. The slang usage “spud” derives from the spade-like tool used to dig ’em out.

The arrival of the potato in Britain and Ireland is unclear, attributed to both Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, but generally agreed to be in the 1590s. The Protestants in northern Ireland and Scotland refused to plant them, since they were not mentioned in the Bible. The Catholic Irish overcame this obstacle by sprinkling them with holy water.

Europeans generally first thought that the potato was poisonous, a common accusation against members of the genus Solanum, which includes deadly nightshade and tomatoes (another new world food that was also considered poisonous when brought to Europe — see the staff report on “Who Invented Pizza?” at www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mpizz a.html). Potatoes weren’t popular, despite their reputation as an aphrodisiac — Shakespeare mentions them in this context in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In 1784, Count Rumford used potatoes in place of barley in the gruel served to the workhouse inmates, because it was cheaper. He had to conceal from the inmates that he was using potatoes, for fear they wouldn’t eat it.

So how did potatoes come to their present popularity? The generally accepted story is that a French army officer named Parmentier was taken prisoner during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and ate potatoes as part of his prison diet in Hamburg, Germany. He found that he liked them. After his release, he managed to introduce them to the French court (“Your majesty, the potato. Potato, I have the honour to introduce King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Introductions all the way round.”) Marie Antoinette reportedly once wore a potato flower as a corsage. But she decided to take a break from eating cake and so ate potatoes. What the queen did was what everyone did, so the potato became fashionable and entered French cuisine. From France, to the world.

As an indication of the speed of this change in attitude, during the French Revolution, some 25 years later, the royal gardens at Tuileries were turned into potato fields.

By the 1800s, the Irish had come to depend on the potato almost entirely. A fungus spread totally wiped out the crop in the 1840s, leading to the tragic and famous potato famine.

And so we arrive at your question. For also in the 1840s, pomme frites (“fried potatoes”) first appeared in Paris. Sadly, we don’t know the name of the ingenious chef who first sliced the potato into long slender pieces and fried them. But they were immediately popular, and were sold on the streets of Paris by push-cart vendors.

Frites spread to America where they were called French fried potatoes. You asked how they got their name — pretty obvious, I’d say: they came from France, and they were fried potatoes, so they were called “French fried potatoes.” The name was shortened to “french fries” in the 1930s.

By the way, the verb “to french” in cooking has come to mean to cut in long, slender strips, and some people insist that “french fries” come from that term. However, the French fried potato was known since the middle 1800s, while the OED cites the first use of the verb “to french” around 1895, so it appears pretty convincing that “french fried potatoes” came before the verb “frenching.” The origin of the name is thus the country of origin French and not the cooking term french.

In the U.K., fried fish had been on sale by street vendors since the 1600s. In 1864, a brilliant (but, alas, unknown) Brit teamed French fried potatoes (called “chips” in English) with fried fish, to create the famous and popular fish and chips.

Today, of course, the worldwide popularity of McDonalds and Burger King and Wendy’s and their ilk have brought French fries to the world. Amusingly, they are now often called “American fries” in many countries.

French fries are commonly eaten with ketchup in the U.S., but with malt vinegar (delicious) in the U.K., and with mayonnaise (appalling) in the Netherlands. The French mostly take them straight, but the Belgians have the best idea (as is so often the case with food): they eat frites with buckets full of mussels.

While we’re on the subject, potato chips (British: crisps) are a purely American invention. In 1852, a chef (George Crum) at a resort in Saratoga, N.Y., was annoyed when a patron (the story says Cornelius Vanderbilt) sent some French fried potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick. Somewhat spitefully, Crum sliced a potato so thin that it couldn’t be speared by a fork, and then fried the slices. One can hear him mutter, “That thin enough for you?” But the patron was delighted, not annoyed, and the potato chip was thus born. They were called “Saratoga chips” and were popular in the Northeast (often eaten with raw clams and oysters) until the 1920s, when they spread through the U.S. and thence the world.

SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.