FRENCH FRIES. In the United States, potatoes cut into long strips and fried in deep fat have been known as french fried potatoes, then french fries, and now just "fries."
French fried potatoes are a favorite food in countries around the world. What makes them so popular? Perhaps it is the flavor of the fat, or the salt—or both—that leads us to purchase the potatoes often. French fries do not require eating utensils in informal situations, which makes them easy to eat and to carry away from the point of purchase. The many restaurants selling french fires frequently combine servings of fries with another food, for example, fried fish or hamburgers. Also, these restaurants advertise widely, so we are tempted to buy french fried potatoes repeatedly.
There is disagreement as to the origin of this method of cooking potatoes. Because the term "French" is used in the name, many people give cooks in France credit for having first prepared french fries. A French writer of the nineteenth century who went by the name of Curnonsky (his real name was Maurice Edmond Sailland) said that if there were regional Parisian cooking, its greatest contribution to gastronomy would be pommes frites (French fried potatoes). Others have suggested that "French" refers to the way in which the potatoes are cut, into lengthwise strips, as with frenched green beans.
Legend has it that President Thomas Jefferson introduced the deep-fried potatoes at a state dinner in 1802 upon his return to the United States from a trip to France. There seems to be no record of them in the United States for about sixty years. Some restaurants were selling them by the 1860s, but this form of potatoes was not popular here until the 1920s when World War I veterans returned from Europe. Drive-in restaurants, opened in the 1930s and 1940s, sold french fries. Since they did not require a utensil, they were easy to eat while driving.
A British food history book states that "chipped" potatoes were introduced into Britain from France about 1870. The term "chips" is used to designate fries in Britain, while potato crisps is the British name for what are known as chips in North America. The British "chipped" potatoes were paired with fried fish and sold in shops instead of the sliced bread or baked potatoes that had accompanied fried fish since about 1850.
In French cookbooks, one finds recipes for potatoes cut into many shapes before frying. For example: pommes frites allumettes (also called julienne de pommes de terre ), which are matchstick-shaped; pommes frites paille, cut into thin straws; and pommes gaufrettes, which are waffle-shaped potatoes. It is not usual to find a recipe for plain pommes frites. Pommes frites pont-neuf, first sold in a Parisian restaurant on the Pont Neuf, may be the closest to our traditional shape for fries.
Recipes for souffléd potatoes are found often in French cookbooks. Souffléd potatoes were first made in 1837, when a dinner being prepared for King Louis Philippe and Queen Amelie was held up by the late arrival of the guests of honor. The chef took the potatoes off the heat before they were quite done, then put them back into hot fat just before serving. The potatoes puffed and were a great success at the dinner. French fries are said to be of best quality when they, too, are partially cooked at a lower temperature, then finished in fat that has been heated to a higher temperature; that has become the traditional way of preparing them. Some American cooks were doing this at home about 1950. American food writer Pam Anderson has developed what she calls a new way for home cooks to do fries, using less oil and raising the temperature of the oil toward the end of the cooking period, rather than removing the potatoes from the fat, then adding them back later. The method still depends on the two different temperatures for a good product.
In the United States, Russet Burbank potatoes are the variety used most for frozen fries. This variety does not grow well in other countries, so about half a million metric tons of frozen fries are exported annually. The greatest market for these is Asia, with the Japanese being the largest consumers. Other potato varieties, especially Bintje, are used fresh for fries in the Netherlands and France, and by some sellers on the East Coast of the United States.
One potato expert says that the best french fries are made in the Netherlands, where they are found on almost every street corner in Amsterdam. There, the fries are served with lots of ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard on top. Others think the Belgians have the best fries, and there are shops in New York City selling Belgian-style fries. The Belgians are known to eat pommes frites more often than the Americans. The correct term for potatoes is pommes de terre, "earth apples," but no one seems to be confused by pommes frites. Belgians might eat them every day, both with meals and as snacks. Along with coffee, pommes frites are known as Belgian staples. The potatoes are usually served with mayonnaise, tartar sauce, Russian dressing, or béarnaise sauce, and may be accompanied by pickles or pickled onions. In Paris, the best pommes frites are said to be made by Algerians, Turks, and Greeks, rather than by French cooks. In each of these countries fresh potatoes are used rather than frozen ones. Americans tend to like fries with tomato ketchup accompanying them, and, in the northernmost parts of the United States and in Canada, vinegar is the choice of topping, a practice probably adopted from the British.
The fat in which the potatoes are fried can make a big difference in flavor of the finished product. McDonald's fries used to be cooked in a mixture of vegetable oil and beef tallow, which gave them a unique flavor. This practice ceased when enough consumers complained about the saturated fat, and so all vegetable fat has been used, and no beef tallow, since 1990. The flavor was different, though, so natural beef flavor was added to the frozen fries, much to the outrage of vegetarians, who expected there to be no animal product in the potatoes. A Belgian recipe for pommes frites calls for beef kidney suet, which gives them a unique flavor.
A Dutch-Egyptian factory near Cairo uses palm oil for its fries. A New York Times food writer fries the potatoes in a mixture of peanut oil and duck fat with bacon added. Another suggestion is to use horse fat, which is difficult to obtain in the United States. Burger King coats the potatoes with a mixture of potato starch and rice flour, then uses liquid smoke for flavor, but does not tell consumers what kind of fat is used.
French Fries as an American Icon Food
In America, frozen french fries were sold at R. H. Macy in New York City in 1946. Maxon Food Systems of Long Island City introduced the fries, but the company failed. Idaho potato processor J. R. Simplot had chemists develop frozen french fries for his company in 1953. These did not catch on because the potatoes tasted best when reheated in hot fat and home cooks did not want to bother doing that for a convenience food. Simplot decided to aim at restaurant owners who would be interested in saving labor in preparing potatoes for frying.
In about 1966, McDonald's restaurants began selling Simplot's frozen french fries. The potato processor had a new factory built just to prepare the fries for McDonald's. Customers did not object to the frozen product, and the reduced labor cost meant that french fries became a very profitable menu item. By 1995, Simplot had produced two billion pounds of french fries and other frozen potato products in the northwestern United States and in China.
In 1960, Americans consumed eighty-one pounds of fresh potatoes per capita and approximately four pounds of frozen french fries. By 1971, the consumption of processed potatoes was greater than that of fresh potatoes. Frozen potatoes accounted for most of the processed potatoes. In 2001 the consumption was forty-nine pounds of fresh potatoes and over thirty-one pounds of frozen french fries. The thirty pounds is equal to about four servings of fries a week. About 67 percent of the fries are bought at fast-food restaurants, with other restaurants accounting for 13 percent of the market share. Americans aged sixty and above eat fewer fries than younger persons.
There are now two other American frozen potato processors larger than Simplot: Lamb Weston, part of ConAgra, and Ore-Ida, owned by Heinz Frozen Food. Both of these companies are located in the Northwest. Lamb Weston processes fries for McDonald's and makes more that 130 different types of fries, some of which are sold in school lunch programs. In 2002, Ore-Ida stimulated sales of frozen french fries by introducing Funky Kool Blue Fries (not made from blue varieties of potatoes, but artificially colored a brilliant blue), chocolate-flavored (and colored) fries, and cinnamon sugar fries.
Frozen french fries have been a profitable item for fast-food companies. In 2001, it was possible to buy the potatoes for about 30 cents a pound and sell french fries for around $6.00 a pound. Unfortunately, farmers get very little of the profits. Increasingly, big corporations own the farms, while the farmers who have been driven from the land are hired to manage the farms for the corporations.
See also Fast Food; Fish and Chips; Hamburger; Icon Foods; Potato; Take-Out Food .
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A Belgian writer says that frites shacks, small wooden shops selling fries along the sidewalks, have all but disappeared in Belgium. In the 1940s in the United States and Canada, there were trailers selling freshly cooked fries parked along the streets of small towns or at beaches.
Residents of the Southeast United States eat more french fries than those of the rest of the country. The Midwest is next, with the West and the Northeast following in that order.
Monitoring the sugar content versus starch content of potatoes is important in getting top-quality fries. If there is too much sugar, the potatoes will brown too fast. Companies may add some sugar to the fries in the fall, and leach out sugar in the spring, in order to get uniform color and taste throughout the year. Storage temperatures will affect sugar content of the potatoes.
French fries are thin strips of deep-fried potato topped with a choice of condiments. Perfect as a snack or a side dish, French fries have long been a staple of fast-food (see entry under 1920s—Food and Drink in volume 2) restaurants like McDonald's (see entry under 1940s—Food and Drink in volume 3).
Most experts trace the origin of the French fry to eighteenth-century Belgium, not France. Wherever they were first made, however, fries quickly became a taste sensation all over Europe. At first, they were served only in restaurants, but street vendors in cities like Paris and Brussels soon began selling them as well. In modern times, French fries are still a popular street snack in Europe. They are known as "patat" in Holland, "chips" in England, and "pommes frites" in France. Throughout the world, such condiments as ketchup, vinegar, and mayonnaise are used to enhance the taste of French fries.
The French-fry craze slowly spread across the Atlantic Ocean to America. After developing a love of pommes frites while serving as the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) served them to guests at his home in Virginia upon his return to America in 1789. However, the French fry did not really catch on with the public until the twentieth century, when soldiers returning from World War I (1914–18) brought back a hunger for the deep-fried potato treat. In the 1950s, American fast-food chains like McDonald's developed systems for deep-frying large quantities of French fries each day. This mass production allowed French fries to grow in popularity as the perfect accompaniment to hamburgers (see entry under 1950s—Food and Drink in volume 3) and other fast food. Doctors and other health professionals condemned the fatty snack as unhealthy, but Americans began consuming fries in large quantities. They particularly liked the McDonald's variety, which became the standard of quality. The burger chain even developed a potato computer to monitor the temperature of the frying oil and to notify the operator when a batch of fries was perfectly cooked.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, French fries accounted for more than one-fourth of all potatoes sold in the United States. In 1998, McDonald's made more than 6.8 million pounds of French fries each day. French fries had become identified so closely with American hamburger meals in the twenty-first century that in Japan and Southeast Asia they were promoted as "American fries."
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
For More Information
Graulich, David. The French Fry Companion. New York: Lebhar-Friedman Books, 1999.
It's French Fries.http://www.tx7.com/fries (accessed February 26, 2002).
Meltzer, Milton The Amazing Potato: A Story in Which the Incas, Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, Wars, Famines, Immigrants, and French Fries All Play a Part. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Salaman, Redcliffe N. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
America's love affair with french fries started in 1789 when Thomas Jefferson, fancier of French cuisine and especially of pommes frites, introduced the delicacies to his fellow citizens when he returned home after serving as American ambassador to France. Two centuries later, french fries, those thin strips of potato cut lengthwise that have been deep-fried until crisp, are internationally associated with hamburgers and fast-food meals. Their popular success benefitted from advances in food processing and the growth of the fast-food trade. They became a fetish of the McDonald's corporation: "The french fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously" wrote Ray Kroc in his book Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Famous for their high quality, McDonald's french fries are essential to the chain's success, with more than 6.8 million pounds prepared every day in 1998. On the eve of the twenty-first century, french fries changed national identity as fast-food ventures in Japan and Southeast Asia promote them as "American fries."
—Catherine C. Galley
Kroc, Ray. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1977.
Meltzer, Milton. The Amazing Potato: A Story in Which the Incas, Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, Wars, Famines, Immigrants and French Fries All Play a Part. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.
Salaman, Redcliffe N. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
French fries (also French fried potatoes) • pl. n. potatoes cut into strips and deep-fried.