Did the French Fries Originate in Belgium?

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It’s believed that the French Fries was invented either by the Belgians or the French. Surprisingly, potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish. In 1537, Jimenez de Quesada and his Spanish forces found potatoes in the food stuff that the natives left behind when they fled from their Columbian village. They were initially called truffles by the Spanish. Lily traces the antiquity of French Fries, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Cardboard boxes filled with potato batons overflowing onto plastic trays. This modern sight is common in many places all over the world. A must have accompaniment to fast foods of this generation, these chips are popularly known as French Fries. This name set me thinking if the birth of these munchies was France? 

Various theories revolve around these strips of golden yumminess. The most popularly accepted views are that the French Fries was invented either by the Belgians or the French. Surprisingly, potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish. In 1537, Jimenez de Quesada and his Spanish forces found potatoes in the food stuff that the natives left behind when they fled from their Columbian village. They were initially called truffles by the Spanish.

Historical findings and accounts indicate that the Belgians were cutting up thin strips of potatoes and frying them as early as the end of the 17th century, in the Meuse valley, between Dinant and Liege, in Belgium. The brilliant idea came to the locals when the rivers froze and it was difficult to catch fish for frying. These smart people cut up potatoes in long thin slices as they would the fish and fried them. Hey, presto! The chips were born! The story gets credence from the fact that the Spanish controlled a lot of what is modern day Belgium, and they were the ones to introduce potatoes to Europe.  

The French have a valid argument in their favour. They give credit to a French army medical officer Antoine Augustine Parmentier, who was the potato’s champion all over Europe. He was given potatoes as a portion of his prison rations when he was taken during the Seven Years War. Earlier, the French parliament had banned potato cultivation as they thought they caused leprosy. Many other diseases were also attributed to it. Its slightly bitter taste was also a put-off. After Parmienter grew and consumed potatoes, he realized that it was perfectly edible.

Once back in France, Parmentier started aggressively promoting consumption of potatoes by hosting dinners with potato preparations. Dignitaries like Benjamin Franklin, King Louis XVI, and Queen Marie Antoinette were hosted by him. Interestingly, he had armed guards protecting and guarding his potato patch. After this, he told his guards to accept bribes and let people steal the potatoes.

By the famine of 1785 it became hugely popular. With skyrocketing popularity in France, potatoes were widely grown on a large scale as well as in the royal gardens. 

Very soon the French invented or learned to make French Fries. They were so well loved in Paris that they were sold by with push carts on the streets of Paris. These fries were called Frites. The story that endured is that they were invented by street on the Pont Neuf Bridge, in Paris, in 1789, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

This was in late 18th century, almost 100 years after the Belgians supposedly learned to make French Fries. It is worth noting that the Franco-Austrian war mostly took place around that time in what is modern day Belgium. Maybe the French soldiers learned to make fries from the Belgians or vice versa.

Frites are the main ingredient in the Canadian Quebec dish, called Poutine in both French and Canadian English. It is a dish of fried potatoes covered with gravy and cheese curds and is supposed to have developed in rural Quebec, in the 1950s.

The first chips in the UK were sold by Mrs. Granny Duce in one west riding town, since 1854, heralding the start of the fast food industry. A plaque in Oldham marks the origin of the fish n chips shop, in Scotland. Chips were first sold in Dundee by a Belgian immigrant.

French Fries were being relished in most Commonwealth countries but the thin style fries gained worldwide popularity by the big American fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Ever since 1960, pre-fried, frozen French Fries were available. Battered and breaded ones followed later.

I would love to share some intriguing facts that I chanced upon while researching the origin of the French Fries. It surprised me that the Belgians consume the most French Fries per capita of any country in Europe.

Different chips cut thin or thick are referred broadly as steak fries, which have lower fat content than normal French Fries. Then there are curly fries as well.

The golden colour of Burger King Fries is due to these being sprayed with a sugar solution, which caramelises during frying.

McDonald’s double fries these. They fries once to cook it till the inside and the other time to make them extra .

The Belgians serve it with a raw egg cracked over them immediately before taking them out of the fryer. One can dip them in the runny yolk!

Most popular accompaniments are tomato sauce, ranch and mayonnaise.

Cultivation of potatoes actually began 2000 years ago in Bolivia and Peru.

Since the potato was not mentioned in the Holy Bible, there was resistance to eat it in Scotland and Ireland. The sprinkled it with Holy Water before planting.

The word potato comes from the Haitian word batata, the word for a sweet potato. Later, Spanish patata led to potato. I wonder how the (an Indian language) word for potato is Batata too!

In cooking terminology “to French” still means to cut something into long thin strips.

After all that trivia, I am hungry for the salt and pepper sprayed “Aaloo ke chips” made hastily by my loving mother when the kids screamed, “Mom, I am hungry.” A lavish slathering of tomato ketchup made it the most delicious thing one could ask for. If one was adventurous, one could sprinkle some chat masala as well! I wonder at the dexterity with which cut them up into perfect batons. This was long before the intrusion of the aggressive fast food chains. Alas, they are responsible for increasing obesity in the Western Hemisphere. There is a check on the quantity offered to the growing kids in school menus. Sadly, whatever tastes scrumptious may not be the best for our health. 

Think about it until next time.

©Lily Swarn

from the internet.

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Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG , she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn
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