The identity of the person who first dropped a sliver of potato into hot oil is unknown; the French claim it was one of their countrymen, while the Belgians are sure they first frenched a fry. Expert opinion on this important matter is divided as well.
Are They Belgian Fries?
Many Belgians claim the potato was first fried as early as 1680 in the region of Wallonie, where the people traditionally ate small fried fish, but were forced to eat other food when the rivers froze in the winter. Potatoes were sliced in small fish shapes, supposedly to imitate their traditional fare, and then fried in fat.
As for the name “French fries”, it’s said to come from either the Irish “to french”, meaning “to cut”, or from the American allies who, when they landed in Belgian Ardennes, tasted the delicious fried potatoes and called them “French fries”, French for the language spoken by the inhabitants and fries because the cooking method. Whatever version takes your fancy, the case for fries being of Belgian origin is very strong.
Around the same time and during the French revolution, the French claim the fried potato was invented by Parisien cooks under the bridges of the Seine river. This version of the history of French fries is immortalised in the name of a type of fry eaten by the French known as Frites Pont-Neuf, named after a famous Parisien bridge.
Potato Chips Under Guard
Regardless of who invented French fries, a Frenchman was certainly the potato’s greatest ally! French chemist, Antoine August Parmentier served as a soldier in the Seven Years War, and while in captivity in Prussia, was fed only potatoes.
At this time, the French only used potatoes for pig food, certainly not for human consumption. In 1748, the French Parliament banned cultivation of potatoes as they were convinced potatoes caused leprosy and various other diseases. However, Parmentier’s prison diet convinced him that the potato had been wrongly accused.
On his return to France, his mission was to popularize the tuber, which he felt had been unjustly rejected. A clever PR man, Parmentier published a thesis, “Inquiry into nourishing vegetables that at times of necessity could be substituted for ordinary food” in 1773, and also brought a bouquet of potato flowers to King Louis XVI’s birthday party. Graciously accepting the gift, the King promptly placed the flower in his lapel, and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, wore them in her hair. Potato flowers quickly became fashionable among the aristocracy.
But potatoes were still getting bad press, with one well known author commenting, “The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality of this food, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households.”
This wasn’t going to stop Parmentier! He threw parties for the French upper-class, serving up to twenty dishes at a time, all containing potatoes. Then, in a display of marketing genius, he planted an acre of potatoes in the French countryside. The plot was conspicuously guarded during the day, but at night, it was unsupervised. Acting exactly as he anticipated, the peasants assumed that anything watched so closely must be valuable, and they stole the plants at night. Soon, potatoes were being planted all over France.
It became a staple food as well as a status symbol, and by 1813 almost one hundred and fifty years after it’s introduction, the potato finally gained acceptance in Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Thanks to the French, potatoes were finally deemed chic enough to eat.
Antoine-Augustine Parmentier is remembered to this day in the famous French dish, Hachis Parmentier which is a baked ground beef mixture topped with mashed potatoes and cheese.