Winter. When I was a kid that meant bundling up against the bitter cold and piling into the car. Mom and Dad took us to the original Nathan’s in Brooklyn – long before most people knew the name. We bought huge servings of French Fries, smothered in salt, ketchup, and mustard, loving the steamy crunch.
Little did we know that our delicious fries weren’t French but the magic of Nathan Handwerker. Handwerker couldn’t imagine that Nathan’s Famous would grow into a global multi-million-dollar business when, in 1916, he opened his nickel hot dog stand in Coney Island.
I still eat Nathan’s French Fries, except now they’re frozen and cooked in the air fryer.
Why is there a French in fries? The history of any popular food is always a challenge. Too many people battle for the right to claim being first – especially with a food savored around the world.
French fries, whether pommes frites (French), patatas fritas (Spain), fritten (Germany), or chips (UK) have more names, toppings, and stories than a lifetime of 500-calorie McDonald’s large (supersized) fries. Even China imports them (mostly from the U.S.)
Belgium, Spain, and France argue who came first.
Belgium claims fries were born in the winter of 1680. The villagers along the Meuse River ate tiny fried fish until one winter the river froze over. They substituted the fish with fried potatoes. Since they spoke French . . . well the rest is history.
During World War 1, American soldiers discovered French Fries and brought the recipe home.
The French argue that the fries were first sold by Paris street vendors in the 1780s.
The Spanish claim rights because (Inca) potatoes were brought back to Spain in the 1550s.
Historians say that American French fries have their own story. Thomas Jefferson loved French cuisine. When the future president served as American Minister to France from 1784 to 1789, he brought along his chef (who was also his slave), James Hemings. James was Sally Hemings older brother. Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s lover and mother of three of his children – (the matriarch of Jefferson’s black family tree).
While in France, Jefferson had Hemings trained as a chef. Hemings became Jefferson’s chef de cuisine and is credited with introducing French Fries to the United States, along with other dishes such as macaroni and cheese, meringue, firm ice cream, and whipped cream.
How many French Fries are eaten today in the U.S? According to Mashed, the average American consumes about thirty pounds of French Fries each year. Europeans eat more than Americans – led by Belgium. There are roughly 5,000 fry vendors in Belgium or one for every 2,200 people.
RestaurantClicks identifies eighteen different types of French Fries from shoestring to steak, curly to waffle, and matchstick to tornado (below).
There is an endless array of fries, shapes, and toppings, from Nathan’s to Canada’s poutine (fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds), and the iconic UK fish and chips.
South Africans call their fries slap chips (doused with vinegar) while the UK (and others) eat a chip butty – a sandwich that includes a roll spread with butter topped with fries and ketchup. Chile has chorrillana, a plate of fries topped with caramelized onions, spices, beef, and a fried egg. Kenya boasts chips masala with fries, fresh onions, tomatoes, and special spices.
There are thousands of restaurants, diners, and snack stands that are constantly re-inventing French Fries. From Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan you can get fries sprinkled with a secret “slut dust” to Hawaii’s sweet potato fries, there are endless choices.
What do you like best?
My favorite is fresh Nathan’s fries with a lot of salt, smothered in mustard and ketchup, and eaten on a cold night in winter. Will you join me?