Did you know Belgium is currently petitioning Unesco to endorse the fry as an official icon of Belgian cultural heritage. A research into the origins of the humble fries is more complex than many universal mysteries and possibly, we’ll likely never know the dish’s true origins.
Whether it’s English fish and chips or poutine in Québec, Parisian steak-frites or Belgian frieten with mayonnaise – or even a ‘supersized’ fry order in the US – many places have laid claim to the simple fried potato.
Despite the common name of this dish (and the fact that France has given the world many famous foods, from the baguette to the soufflé), the French fry is unequivocally Belgian, at least according to Albert Verdeyen, chef and co-author of Carrément Frites, which charts the history of the fry.
“Americans call it a French fry,” he said, “but it’s not a French fry, it’s a Francophone fry.”
Common lore claims that the original fry was born in Namur in francophone Belgium, where the locals were particularly fond of fried fish. When the River Meuse froze over one cold winter in 1680, people ostensibly fried potatoes instead of the small fish they were accustomed to, and the fry was born.
Proponents of this story claim that this Belgian town is not only the source of the French fry, but indeed, of its name: American soldiers, stationed in the francophone region during World War I, allegedly dubbed the potatoes ‘French fries’, and the common (if slightly imprecise) moniker was born.
Although Belgium is currently petitioning Unesco to endorse the fry as an official icon of Belgian cultural heritage, some claim that this legend doesn’t quite hold water.
Culinary historian Pierre Leclercq, professor of the University of Liège, noted in an article on the history of fries that the story is “not plausible”.
First and foremost, Leclercq explained, even if the Namur-based legend is true, it’s far more likely that it took place, not in 1680, but in 1739: after all, he wrote, potatoes were not introduced into the region until 1735. But even once the Namurois had spuds at their disposal, Leclercq said, it’s unlikely that they deep-fried them.
“In the 18th Century, fat was a luxury for people of limited means,” he explained. “Butter was expensive, animal fat was rare, and cheaper vegetable fats were consumed with parsimony. That’s why peasants ate fat straight, without wasting it, on bread or in a soup.”
He noted that for this reason, the notion that the poor would waste fat by using it for deep-frying seems suspect, challenging the credence of this traditional tale – regardless of when it ostensibly took place.
Leclercq is not the only one to believe in a different origin story for the French fry. Some people, particularly the French, take the name of the dish a bit more literally. These proponents of a truly ‘French’ fry claim that the delicacy’s first form was the pomme Pont-Neuf, a deep-fried potato sold by pushcart vendors on Paris’ oldest bridge, the eponymous Pont Neuf, in the late 18th Century.
Canada, meanwhile, home to McCain Foods, the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen French fries (and other frozen potato specialties), has truly made fries a national dish thanks to poutine. The combination of fries, cheese curds and gravy first appeared in rural Québec in the 1950s, though its exact birthplace is nearly as much a source of contention as that of the French fry itself, with claims from both the towns of Warwick and Drummondville.
“There are two or three versions, but I don’t think we’ll ever know [which was the original],” said Charles-Alexandre Théorêt, author of Maudite Poutine. “And maybe it’s better that way.”