WHY BELGIANS INVENTED THE FRENCH FRIES
A large portion of fries with mayonnaise, please...'. It's Friday night, you've had a busy week at work, and after 15 minutes of queuing at the local chip shop with a growling stomach, you have finally been able to place your order. 'Shall I put some salt on the fries?'
Nine out of ten Belgians enjoy a packet of fries with a sauce of their choice every week, usually with a few fried snacks on the side as a guilty pleasure. For chip shops, Friday is essentially 'fry-day', the busiest day of the week where they see their turnover increase by no less than five times. So in this country, we are very fond of our fries, which, according to the legend, are also a typical Belgian invention.
So why is it that our popular potato snack is invariably referred to as 'French fries' outside the country's borders? Why 'French'? We associate France with 'croissants', 'ratatouille', and 'superb cheese', but to receive such credit for our 'Belgian gold' is pushing it a bit too far, right?
The rivalry with our southern neighbours remains fierce, especially since the infamous lost semi-final against France at the 2018 World Cup. And when French football analysts recently claimed in a talk show that the Belgians would quickly and unexpectedly return home from Euro 2020 to eat 'their beloved fries', the whole country was in a frenzy. But are the fries a Belgian invention or not?
Let's settle this discussion once and for all by going back in time and find out who can finally claim this hard-fought title of 'inventor of the fries'.
WW1 - the Americans discover 'deep-fried' chips
Let us return for a moment to the horror of the First World War. Europe struggles under the occupation. British and American soldiers finally push back the Germans after a hard-fought battle in the trenches. A lot of hungry mouths to fill. At the Belgian front, the soldiers learn about chips. Due to the chaos and confusion, and because they hear French words being used all around them, they accidentally assume they are in France... Result: another adjective that will forever define the international image of our snack. 'Tastes good, let's call them 'French Fries' folks!'
Nice story for a campfire..., but unfortunately not entirely true. In 1865 an American cookbook already mentioned 'french fried potatoes', describing a certain way of frying as 'french fried'. The verb 'to french' also refers to a particular way of chopping potatoes, and is sometimes quoted as an explanation for finely sliced 'french fries'. But surprisingly, the first time this way of cutting is mentioned in cookery books is in 1940.
'Pommes pont neuf', s'il vous plaît!
Are Chips a French invention after all? Let's step back into our time machine and zap ourselves back to the second half of the eighteenth century. We are in Paris on the Pont Neuf, the fourth longest bridge in the city, where a series of colourful food stands are lined up. It is a very busy place, and because time travel has taken its toll on us, we hungrily go in search of something tasty to eat. We order a portion of 'Pommes Pont Neuf', which look suspiciously like chips. Two cm thick sliced pieces of potato, you can still find them in France today by the way. According to historian 'Marie Delcourt', French migrants, who at the time were fleeing a murderous emperor with an unhealthy guillotine addiction, brought the 'Pommes Pont Neuf' to Belgium as a culinary innovation. Belgians then began to chop these pieces of potato into smaller pieces, et voila...fries were born!
Again, a nice story, but also just a myth. The first successful chip shop in Belgium was set up at the fair in Liege in 1838. A certain Mr Frederic Krieger, "Fritz" to his friends, started this popular innovation in the food catering sector. But to this day, nobody knows where he got the inspiration to start frying little chunks of potato in fat. There are, however, a few clues that could put us on the right track.
In 1781, a certain historian by the name of Joseph Gérard published a manuscript containing a hopeful snippet for Belgians to claim fries as an invention:
"The inhabitants of Namur, Dinant and Andenne are in the habit of catching small fish in the Meuse to improve their daily living, especially for the poor. When the water freezes, they cut potatoes into the shape of little fish and fry them in the same way."
From 'fried fish' to 'fried potatoes', in other words. The manuscript further mentions that this tradition dates back to 1681. Unfortunately, this 'family manuscript' was never published in its entirety, and conflicting sources state that potatoes were not sold as a product in Namur until 1735. Fat was not very cheap at the time, and it seems unlikely that poor farmers could afford to start frying potatoes in a luxury product at that time. So french fries may never have originated in the farmers' kitchens of the past.
100% Belgian, and this is why
So, are fries truly a Belgian invention? We will never be 100% sure. The only thing we do agree on is that mobile chip stands do originate from Belgium. The aforementioned Fritz had applications on paper in 1838 for a chip stand at the Sinksenfoor in Antwerp. His idea became an overwhelming success, and from there, the classic 'pommes frites' also found their way into restaurants.
So can we still call fries a Belgian invention, despite the uncertainty about the origin of the deep-fried snack? Our answer: You're damn right we can!
Why? Simply because we Belgians have refined fries further as a delicacy. Belgian kitchens started with the principle of frying fries 'twice' for the sake of taste. And admit it, real fries are fried twice, right?
Belgian fries are the real stuff! And even though it is not yet Friday, today is National French Fry Day in America, so be sure to stop by your local chip shop for a nice large portion of fries with some sate spices.
And don't forget to add some fried minced meat snacks in honour of Mr Fritz too.