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Are French fries really French?

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Are French fries really French?
French fries sit in a reusable container at a McDonald's restaurant in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, on December 20, 2022. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

While the French are known for inventing many treasured dishes, they may not be able to claim 'French' fries - so how did they get their name?


Crispy, delicious and exactly what many people crave when walking into a pub or fast food joint. Brits call them chips, the French call them pommes frites or just frites but Americans only know them under one name: French fries.

They are immensely popular in the US, with Americans eating around 13kg (30 pounds) of French fries per year.

There is just one problem with French fries (and it's not that they were briefly re-named 'freedom fries') - they may not be French at all.

This wouldn't be the first time Americans have misnamed something as French when it really isn't, but the origins of the salty snack are tricky to pinpoint.

READ MORE: How do the French talk about 'French' kisses, doors and manicures?

The Belgium theory

The first hypothesis is that they came from France's neighbour to the north, Belgium. This theory makes sense to a lot of people who have spent time in Belgium - fries are an important part of their gastronomy. Take the classic dish Moules Frites (mussels and fries) for example.


According to legend, French fries as we know them began in 1690 in the Belgian town of Namur. 

Previously, inhabitants were used to eating a type of fried fish, but when the river froze over they had to come up with an alternative. Someone apparently had a brilliant idea to instead chop up some potatoes and fry those. 

Years later, American soldiers supposedly noticed locals eating these fried potato slices, and they incorrectly dubbed them 'French fries' (although in fairness to the confused Americans, Namur is in the Francophone part of Belgium, so maybe they were naming them after the local language).

Belgians are fiercely proud of their 'frites' status, as evidenced by the truly excellent Musée de la Frite in Bruges. 

There are a few issues with this story though - Belgian culinary historian Pierre Leclercq told the BBC that "potatoes were not introduced into the region until 1735."

On top of that, even if they had potatoes, peasants probably would not have 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," Leclercq told the BBC.

It's possible some version of the story did happen, but it wouldn't have been until at least 45 years later.

The Spanish theory

There is another theory - French fries may have actually started off as Inca/Spanish fries. 

We cannot forget that potatoes are a New World food - they did not exist in Europe until after the Spaniards made contact with the Inca empire in the mid-1500s. In an article tracing the origins of French fries, National Geographic referenced a memoir written by the conquistador Pero Cieza de Leon. 

In 1553, he published a book about his experiences in the Andes, and he described potatoes as "a kind of earth nut which, after it is boiled, is as tender as cooked chestnuts." As the Spaniards already had a tradition of frying things in oil, they may have started by frying potatoes, Nat Geo noted.

Still, a circular fried potato is not a thinly sliced French fry.


The French theory

This hypothesis takes us back to France.

In the 1770s, pharmacist and agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier pushed for potatoes to be recognised as a food source for humans, even though there was a lot of scepticism surrounding the starchy root vegetable at the time.

He was successful, and potatoes took off during the second half of the 18th century - and Parmentier gave his name to a potato-based dish. 

Fried potatoes became popular for street dishes during the late 18th century and early 19th century, historian Madeleine Ferrière told French newspaper Le Monde.


Ferrière alleged that the 'pomme frite Pont-Neuf', a snack sold on Paris' oldest bridge, could have been the father of the modern French fry. She said that street vendors sold all types of things: "they offered fried food, hot chestnuts and slices of browned potato."

This theory does track with the future globalisation of the snack - American statesman and former president Thomas Jefferson visited France in 1784, alongside the enslaved man James Hemings.

Jefferson apparently loved French cuisine so much that he arranged for Hemings to be trained as a chef in France, and to bring back the tasty "raw, fried potatoes, thinly sliced" which would be served at his estate.

When did they start being called 'French fries' in the USA?

There's still no formal consensus on when and why Americans began referring to sliced fried potatoes as French fries, a name that has not really taken off in many other countries (apart from neighbouring Canada).

Most European countries name them as 'fried potatoes' in the local language although several countries including Germany and Sweden use the French term pommes frites, suggesting some kind of Francophone link.

The earliest sign of a phrase resembling 'French fries' in the US would be Thomas Jefferson's "potatoes served in a French manner" from 1802, but the founding father's favourite treat would have been very different from the fries we are used to now.


According to Mashed, the fries served by Jefferson were "potatoes cut in quarter-inch slices or 'in shavings round and round, as you would peal a lemon,' as described in a Monticello cookbook written late in Jefferson's life."

Later, in 1856, the expression "French fried potatoes" appeared in a cookbook by Eliza Warren (Cookery for Maids of All Work). The book instructed that potatoes be cut into "thin slices" and then be boiled in fat with a little salt.

This usage of the phrase 'French fried' might actually be a bit misleading. In the early 20th century, 'French fried' was also used to describe any kind of deep fried food, including onion rings or chicken. 

And of course there is the theory of the American soldiers during World War I, who ate fried, sliced potatoes along French-speaking soldiers.

What is certain, however, is that French fries exploded in global during the 20th century, particularly the latter half.

They are McDonald's largest selling product globally, with about 4 million kg (9 million pounds) of fries sold every day.

READ MORE: Reader question: Is McDonald's really healthier in France?


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Christopher 2024/01/18 20:32
Ever popular UK "chips" were deep fried raw potato, tasty but limp. "French fries" were twice cooked, first on médium heat to ensure the insides were soft, then quickly at high température to crisp the outsides. I guess this method was originally for the convenience of restaurant kitchens where individual portions of par-cooked pdt could be quickly crisped to order. Now some restaurants in the UK offer triple-ooked chips. In have no idea why.
Vincent 2024/01/18 16:19
What about French Toast ? Is just a plain croque-monsieur with maple syrup and bacon on the side ?

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