The French and What They Eat: The History of Frites, what we call French Fries or Chips
Avoir la frite. / To have the French fry, meaning “to be fit.”
The French swear they invented frites, what we call French fries. The Belgians also claim to have invented them. One thing we do know is that French fries, or “chips,” as the British call them, came on the scene relatively late in the context of food history, since potatoes were incorporated into the French diet well after the discovery of the New World. It was in the late eighteenth century that Parmentier made them popular; before that, they had been the food of the poor who couldn’t afford bread and had often been used as animal feed.
But before there were French fries, there were fried potatoes, sliced, then fried in butter or lard, or sometimes breaded and fried like fritters. There is mention of this method in the eighteenth century, and recipes started appearing in French cookbooks in the nineteenth century. Already in 1807, the famous gastronomic writer Grimod de La Reynière, advised eating steak with potatoes fried in fresh butter. The following year, Stendhal wrote in his journal: “At quarter past four, I ate grilled mutton with fried potatoes and salad.”
It was only in 1838 that a Belgian by the name of Monsieur Fritz discovered the secret to making frites or French fries as we know them today. He had learned the technique in a rotisserie in the Rue Montmartre in Paris. His secret was to cut the potatoes into sticks instead of slices. This method soon took over in France and abroad.
Early Recipes for Frites and French fries
Make a batter using potato flour and two eggs beaten with water. Add a spoon of oil, a spoon of eau de vie, salt and pepper. Beat well until there are no more lumps. Peel raw potatoes. Slice. Soak in the batter. Fry until they form a nice color.–Madame Mérigot, La Cuisinière républicaine / The Republican Cook, 1794
Peel raw potatoes. Slice them. Flour them and throw them into extraordinarily hot deep fat. When they are fried, sprinkle salt on them.–A.T. Raimbault, Le Parfait Cuisinier / The Perfect Cook, 1811.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She writes for the British publicationsÂ In Search of Taste and Modern Salt, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.