Bugle Editor, Steve Martindale, looks at the origins of the humble chip. As a proud Belgian resident for 6 years, but now raising a family in France, his loyalties are torn on the topic of who exactly did invent the French Fry…
Sprinkled with salt, dunked in ketchup, soaked in vinegar, covered with gravy or dipped in mayonnaise, everyone has their own specific way of enjoying the humble, crisp strips of fried tuber known the world over as French fries!
The origin of the fried potato, or chip to the British, is a matter of dispute among experts; both France and Belgium – where they are the national dish – have laid claim to the invention of fries, but until now there has been no definitive answer.
According to French legend, the frite was invented by street merchants on the Pont Neuf in Paris, just after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. “Fries, they are the orphan of street cooking, of low birth. That is why it’s hard to establish where they really come from,” says French historian, Madeleine Ferrière.
This Parisian genesis story is popular in France and has been often quoted, but is bitterly disputed by the proud Belgians, who claim that fried potatoes were invented on their side of the border. Belgian folklore states that the chip was invented by accident in the 17th century by the people of Namur, in what later became southern Belgium. The story goes that people there needing a cheap meal would fish in the river Meuse, frying what they caught. One day when the river was frozen, local fishermen chopped potatoes up into slices resembling small fish and fried those instead.
As part of a festival of food in the Belgian capital called Brusselicious, culinary experts and historians from both countries have previously examined the competing claims. Pierre Leclerc, a professor at the University of Liège, admitted that there was little proof of Belgium’s paternity. “Belgians adore chips but serious scientific research on the subject has only just begun,” he said.
Then there are the Spanish. They once controlled the area that is now Belgium and claim that the recipe for French fries first appeared in Galicia, where it was served as an accompaniment to fish dishes. From there they say it travelled aboard Spanish galleons to Belgium.
Looks like the jury is still out on this one…
What’s in a name?
The exact origin may remain unclear, but where does the “French” part come from?
One theory is that the term “French fry” is a shortening of “French fried potato” meaning a potato fried in the French style. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson had “potatoes served in the French manner” on the menu at a White House dinner. Adventurous farmer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former ambassador to France, Jefferson had indeed brought the fried potato back to America with him from Paris. In fact, the recipe can still be seen today in a manuscript written in Jefferson’s own hand (although it almost certainly came from his French chef, Honoré Julien). When he served these fried potatoes to his guests using this trans-Atlantic recipe… voilà, the French fry was born.
Some Belgians dispute this and believe that the term “French” was introduced when American soldiers arrived in Belgium during World War I, and consequently tasted Belgian fries. They supposedly called them “French” as it was the official language of the Belgian Army at that time.
Today, Belgian culinary experts insist that chips have achieved their pinnacle, in terms of both quality and cultural importance, in Belgium. The French use them as something to eat with meat. The British insist on fish. “We, the Belgians, have made the chip something noble in itself,” says Albert Verdeyen, co-author of a book on chips. “Above all, we have mastered better than anyone else the art of double-cooking them until they are golden and crunchy.”
Frites in the south, or frieten in the north, are an institution in Belgium – do not try to tell a proud Belgian that they were invented anywhere else! The Belgians are also the largest consumers of chips in Europe. They are eaten at any time of the day, usually from a cone with a large dollop of sauce on top and can be a meal in themselves. You have not eaten chips until you have had twice fried chips from a friterie or frietkot on a square in a Belgian town.
“To go to a frietkot, that is the very essence of being a Belgian,” says Philippe Ratzel who owns the Clementine stall, one of the most popular in Brussels. “Here, you can meet anyone – the old lady who is taking her dog out for a walk, students or even the government minister who lives nearby.”
Whatever their origins and however they got their name, let’s stop fighting and just agree that at their best they are hard to beat. John Calvi, in a 1982 poem called French Fries, perhaps said it best, in his final stanza, when he wrote:
Some think the army, the bombs and the guns
Will one day save all of our lives,
I don’t believe it – heat up your pans
Make peace, and lots of French fries.