If you’re traveling to Belgium, as an American, you’re bound to offend if you don’t watch yourself: those aren’t French fries. You can call them by their French name (frites) or Dutch (frieten) but in English, they are not French fries. They are Belgian fries.
In Belgium, any grandmother will tell you that the secret to good fries lies in frying them twice. The first time, fried on low heat, the potatoes cook and become fluffy. The second time, on high heat, the outside of the fries becomes crunchy and crisp. If you order your fries at a friterie, they will come in a white cardboard cone, with sauce squirted on top. Most Belgians prefer mayonnaise, and perhaps ketchup.
Belgians supposedly consume more French fries frites than anyone else in the world. As I wander the streets of any city in Belgium, it comes as no surprise. The Belgians celebrate their history by placing a friterie about every block.
Fries, or chips (for all you Brits), are essentially all a comfort food should be: hot, salty, starchy, and fatty. It is no wonder that there is a hot and salty (and starchy and fatty?) contention over who “invented” them.
A French person will quickly point to a number of anglophone sources, including Thomas Jefferson’s own writing, that refer to fried potatoes “served in the French manner”. “French fries” may indeed come from the old culinary term, “French fried”, which referred to any number of different things that are deep fried.
The Belgians, however, claim that while France, the bigger country, may have popularized fries in the world, it was the Belgians who showed the French how to make the dish in the first place.
There are an enormous number of origin stories of “French fries”. When the potato was introduced to Europe from South America around 1600, most people thought it was toxic. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the potato became popular in western Europe.
One origin story claims that when Belgian peasants ran out of fish to fry during some particularly tough seasons, they cut up potatoes in thin strips and fried them to mimic the way they normally prepared fish. This dish eventually spread to France, where it was then exported to the world under the French name.
Another popular Belgian story comes from WWI, when the many American troops stationed in Belgium tried the local cuisine, which included fries. The mobile troops, not really knowing European geography and hearing the locals speak French, assumed they were in France. When they returned to the US, they called the dish “French fries”.
No one knows who “invented” fries. It’s possible that the Belgians invented the fries and introduced them to the French; the reverse is also conceivable. Or, the dishes evolved concurrently in different places that already had similar climates and cuisines. What is most likely is that we’ll never have a definitive answer in this debate.
And yet the lively debate continues, over cones of fries in Belgium and France. This is what is most interesting of all: how cuisine becomes tied to identity. The ownership of fries is not a major dispute. But to those involved, it is a debate of both gastronomical legacy and of cultural influence. People want to claim ownership over what they see as their contribution to the culinary world, because food is tied to cultural identity.
This is why, in every debate that I witness, I try to set everyone off balance. “Wait…” I ask, acting confused, “didn’t McDonald’s invent the fries in like the 60s?”