Why do Americans love french fries so much? While their popularity spans the globe, we Americans devour nearly 2 million tons every year. They make the perfect partner with hamburgers or simply alone. And potato chips? Who can eat just one?
The french fry began in Europe, with Belgium and France both claiming its creation. The potato chip is strictly American. (In either case, explorer Marco Polo missed out.) Centuries ago, the lowly potato was plentiful and cheap, traveled well and lent itself to different preparations, making it a popular food in Europe. The French fried it and called it “pommes frites.” The popular dish came to America and was called “French fried potatoes.” In the 1930’s the name was shortened to “french fries.”
Food historians will argue that the french fry began its popularity in Belgium, as early as the 1600s. Some claim they may have been a substitute for small fried fish, when the rivers froze over and fishing was near impossible. They caught on as a tasty side dish and found their way down to France, whose chefs were always open to new foods and cooking styles.
Originally eschewed as an unhealthy root vegetable and used as pig feed, those inventive French did a 180 degree turnaround and began serving them as a delicacy. Pommes Frites spread to America and President Thomas Jefferson first served the potato fried thin and crisp to guests at the White House, after enjoying them on one of his trips to France. Americans soon found the potato economical and easy to grow, and a welcome addition to their daily meals. Hearty soups and chowders fed large families, and as cooks began experimenting with variations of the potato, new recipes popped up throughout the country.
When hamburgers caught on, thanks to early chains like White Castle and eventually McDonald’s, fries were an economical partner, not to mention a big profit for the restaurants. They were easy to eat, unlike the baked or mashed versions, and could be served in a small paper envelope.
The creation of potato chips goes to a New Yorker named George Crum, a chef at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the crispy light discovery was an instant hit among the guests. But the general public did not have occasion to enjoy the crispy treat until snack foods became popular in the twentieth century. Chips led the way and were originally sold in cans. With all the flavors offered to us, 50 percent of American households still prefer the plain. Americans crunch down half of the world’s production, totaling over seven billion dollars annually. That translates into almost five pounds a year per person. And that’s just chips. Figure in other forms, and you have 110 pounds of potatoes per year per person. (That’s a lot of starch.)
So there you have it–a brief history of the most popular vegetable in the country. Mash it, bake it, fry it, boil it. Who’d have thought the humble potato, once considered only fit for hog feed, could evolve into our favorite snack?
This author confesses to being a closet potato chip eater, and admits that the sour cream and cheddar flavor is her favorite. Mashed and baked potatoes are great, but nothing quite equals the french fry. With ketchup.