Do French fries come from France?

Posted by Josh on 12th Jun 2024 in the blog in the french culture category

There’s no shortage of foodstuffs named after the places they’re believed to have originated in. Many of these names are accurate (Peking duck is indeed from Peking, or Beijing, as the Chinese capital is now known) but some are total misnomers (Vienna fingers were an American, not Austrian, invention). It’s therefore no surprise that people often wonder whether French fries — some of the commonest, tastiest and most popular foods in the world — are as French as they claim to be.

These tasty slices of fried potato are, in the long history of cuisine, a fairly recent invention. The potato was first exported from America in the 16th century, and none of the competing theories as to the origin of the French fry date back further than 250 years ago. That said, we still don’t know for sure who first came up with the idea of thinly slicing and frying potatoes, to produce the dish that we today recognise as fries.

One theory maintains that fries originated in Paris in the late 18th century. This is alluded to in the name of the dish 'Pommes Pont-Neuf' — named after the bridge where street vendors would sell these delicacies on the eve of the French Revolution - and you can find this dish in French cookbooks today, although these fried potatoes are more akin to the English chip than the typical ‘French’ fry.

Dreamstime m 183774858

Pommes Pont-Neuf

Another theory posits that fries were not originally French but Belgian — albeit from the French-speaking south of Belgium, specifically the Meuse Valley, where locals would thinly slice and fry fish from the Meuse river. In harsh winters, the river would freeze, and with fish becoming scarce, the locals would eat potatoes instead, preparing them in much the same way. This tradition predates the name 'French fries', of course, which was rarely used before the 1920s. According to this theory, the savoury snack was christened by American soldiers who were stationed in the Meuse Valley in World War 1. The soldiers took a liking to the dish and brought it back home with them after the war had ended, perhaps naming the dish ‘French fries’ due to the language spoken by the locals.

There’s a certain plausibility to this story, given that many other foods were popularised the same way. Dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara and even pizza, for instance, only achieved worldwide popularity after American soldiers took the recipes back home with them after being stationed in Italy during the Second World War.

Yet another theory, however, holds that Americans popularised the dish far earlier than the twentieth century - as early, in fact, as the founding fathers. The evidence for this comes from no other than Thomas Jefferson, who had a habit of recording recipes from his travels around Europe. One of these is recorded as ‘Pommes de terre frites en petites tranches’, and shortly afterwards we see the same dish cropping up in American cookbooks as ‘French fried potatoes’. Unfortunately, recipes back then tended not to have accompanying photos, so we can’t be absolutely sure that this is the dish known nowadays as ‘French fries’.

So we can't be totally sure where exactly French fries come from, although the name is almost certainly an American coinage. Interestingly, in the early 2000s, the American government tried to change the name in congressional cafeterias from 'French fries' to 'Freedom fries', albeit with much less success. The stunt had less to do with the ambiguous provenance of the term than with certain political motivations, and the term didn't really stick. So, for now, at least, they continue to be known as 'French fries'.

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