Fries: American Comfort Food with Foreign Roots and Unique International Interpretations
Attend any summer barbecue or local baseball game, and it’s likely you’ll encounter crispy golden fries. It’s just a cheap starchy vegetable, transformed by a boiling hot oil bath and liberally salted. But is there anything more American than the humble fried potato?
These finger-length strips of tuber are the perfect accompaniment to a variety of foods. Steak and fries. Burger and fries. Chicken strips and fries. In fact, the average American consumes an estimated twenty-nine pounds of fries every year. And the USDA states that one-third of America’s vegetable consumption is taken up entirely by potatoes, earning it the number one spot on the list.
But how did fries earn their top spot on America’s veggie roster? And what sort of similarities and differences exist in other countries?
Let’s find out.
Are Fries French?
If we call them French fries, it must mean they came from France, right? Well, maybe.
The origin of the French fry is somewhat disputed. Both Belgium and France claim to have invented the tasty morsel, but evidence supporting both claims is thin. It’s thought the name French fry originated with U.S. soldiers stationed in Belgium during the first World War. The southern Belgians spoke French, so when they served these tasty potatoes to the Americans stationed there, the soldiers called them “French” fries.
However, the delicacy arrived in the U.S. even earlier than the twentieth century. Thomas Jefferson encountered a similar dish while serving as the Minister to France in the 1780’s. A fried potato recipe exists in his family’s recipe collection, lovingly transcribed from Jefferson’s original by his granddaughters. The recipe references raw potatoes, cut into small pieces, and then deep-fried. And in fact, Jefferson served potatoes “in the French manner” at a White House dinner in 1802.
Over time, the name morphed. “French fried potatoes” slowly eroded to today’s abbreviated “fries.” But their popularity inside the U.S. continues to grow, even today.
Getting Saucy: Foreign Fry Toppings
We Americans prefer our fry toppings on the sweet side, with ketchup securing the top spot by a wide margin. The French opt for mustard, but their potato rivals (-aka- the Belgians) dip in mayonnaise. And the Brits choose to embrace liberal doses of vinegar, while the Japanese enjoy soy sauce.
However, our neighbors to the North have taken things a few steps further. Canadians have upped the fry topping game with their national dish: poutine. Composed of fries, cheese curds, and gravy, this delicious gut-buster is found in bars and restaurants across the country. Its origins are also disputed, though generally traced back to Quebec. And hundreds of variants have popped up over the years, with additions such as bacon, pulled pork, green onions, and more.
Spanish Fries -aka- Papas Bravas
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Spanish actually invented fries. After all, they have a long culinary history of frying with oil, and they were the first Europeans to discover the South American potato. However, they don’t traditionally use the long and skinny shape we know today. Instead, they cut their potatoes into an irregular dice before frying them. Once cooked and golden, the cubes get topped with a spicy tomato-based sauce, and side of aioli.
Perhaps this texturally beautiful potato puff is the true French fry. However, like so many other fried potato creations, its origin is disputed.
The best legend claims the inventor was none other than the renowned Chef Collinet, who also happens to be the inventor of the rich and creamy sauce béarnaise. And the fact that béarnaise is often served alongside these starchy delicacies certainly lends credence to this origin myth.
The story goes, the esteemed French aristocracy was unexpectedly delayed during the inauguration of a new passenger railway service in France. The potatoes that had been frying, timed for the original arrival, were removed from the oil while only partially cooked. Once the train managed to crest the steep hill, Chef Collinet scrambled to finish the meal and coordinate with the new arrival time. Plunging the half-cooked potatoes into hot oil a second time, they puffed up into perfect potato pillows. And thus, a bellowed creation was born.
Outside of its native France, you can find versions of pommes soufflés in Louisiana, with some of the best being done by Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
So Many Fries, So Little Time
After all of this, you might be asking yourself: who is the real winner in this world-wide fry showdown?
You! Humanity! Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fried potato in all its various and glorious forms.
Oh, and probably several cardiologists.
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