The Secret History of French Fries


Few things get the mouth salivating like a plate of deliciously crispy French fries. Whether you’ve enjoyed salty, mayonnaise-covered fries from a ‘Patat’ stand in Holland, where the potato is revered almost as much as the Dutch royal family, or had a go at making them yourself, they’re a staple that both food snobs and ready-made fans can agree on.

But the history of the golden French fry is complicated. There have been rows over which nation invented them (it would be too obvious if they were French right?), wars that made them popular, and even a marketing campaign fronted by Marie Antoinette.

So here’s our whistle-stop tour of the secret history of French fries. We’ll take you from the discovery of the potato, right through to how the likes of McCain French fries became so popular today.

Belgian fries?

The story of our humble French fry begins in 1537, with Jimenez de Quesada and his Spanish forces stumbling across a strange new foodstuff, left behind by Colombians as they fled their conquered village. Initially confusing them for truffles, the Spanish brought the potatoes back to Europe, although it took 20 years for them to become widely-known. Latin countries initially eschewed this odd vegetable when they struggled to grow it, but Northern Europe slowly began to take it to its heart.

But it was the Belgians who took things to the next level by starting to fry potato strips in the late seventeenth century. Historical accounts show that bragging rights for the invention of the French fry belong to the Low Countries, despite Gallic claims to the contrary. According to some documents, Belgians resorted to frying potato strips as an alternative to frying fish when the rivers froze over.

The French claims

Of course, the French have their own story around the development of French fries, linked to the almost fanatical passion for the potato shown by one man, celebrated French military medical officer, Antoine-Augustine Parmentier. In eighteenth-century France, the potato was regarded with great suspicion as many believed it had links to leprosy. Indeed, until 1772, the cultivation of potatoes was banned in France. But when Parmentier was forced to eat them as prison rations following his capture during the Seven Years War,  he realized that the scare stories were false.

He became a passionate advocate, finally helping to reverse France’s ban after hosting gala dinners, featuring his favourite foodstuff, for the likes of Benjamin Franklin, King Louis  XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. By 1795, potato growing had become widespread in France and fried ‘frites’ began to be sold by push-cart vendors on the streets of Paris.

The Americans complete the job

Even though the French still like to stake their claim to the invention of the French fry, it seems that the Belgians beat them to it by around 100 years. It is entirely possible that the French military cottoned on to the idea of frying potatoes during operations in Belgium. But it was really the Americans who popularized French fries as we know them today. Becoming a staple of road-side diners as the car began to dominate the USA, French fries quickly became synonymous with the fast food revolution of the 1960s. In many parts of the world outside Europe, French fries are known as ‘American fries’.

So there’s our trip through the secret history of French fries. The arguments about who invented the French fry will no doubt continue, but we’re just glad that someone had the forethought to get frying. We’re off to get ourselves a nice salty plate of them right now.

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