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French fries

Q From James Tapper: A friend of mine recently asked whether French fries should be capitalised. This sparked some debate about the origin of the term. Is the word French an indication of the origin of the dish or is it a shortening of frenched, a method of cutting up vegetables into long thin strips? Or should we just call them chips?

A Chips is a confusing term. American chips are what we British call crisps, while our British chips are usually shorter and more chunky than the sort called French fries; Australians use chips for both the American and British sorts, distinguishing the latter by calling them hot chips. The long, thin ones are commonly called fries almost everywhere.

I’ll return to frenched later. Like that word, it is now quite common to see french fries, without the initial capital. The Chicago Manual of Style says that such terms shouldn't be given initial capital letters unless they really do come from the country concerned (so brussels sprouts, swiss cheese, plaster of paris). Most dictionaries disagree. The best rule is Chicago’s own: find a style you like and stick to it.

Whether or not you capitalise the first word, it’s widely believed that French fries originated in France. However, in French-speaking Europe some hold that they were originally Belgian, while some Americans argue for a strong link with their own country.

One story is that French fries were first called that by American soldiers in Belgium and France towards the end of the First World War, who came across them under the name pommes frites and converted that into French fries. This is folk etymology — the term was known earlier.

Another tale connects the dish to an early US president, Thomas Jefferson. Marshall Fishwick (in his article The Savant as Gourmet in Modern Culture in 1998) and Charles Ebeling (in an address to the Chicago Literary Club in 2005) say that the concept was introduced by him. The latter was told by a guide at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, that a recipe of 1802 exists in Jefferson’s own handwriting. A widespread story online asserts that it refers to a request to his French chef Honoré Julien for “potatoes served in the French manner” and speculates that Jefferson may have got it from his period as ambassador to France. Anna Berkes, Research Librarian at Monticello, tells me that there is a recipe, probably dating from Jefferson’s presidential period, which mentions “pommes de terre frites, à crû en petites tranches” (“Potatoes, raw, in small slices, deep-fried”). This is a description in French of fried potatoes but not obviously a description of potatoes fried in a French manner. Nobody associated with the Jefferson archives knows of the request. Like chips or fries the story is best taken with a pinch of salt.

A French manner of serving potatoes was certainly described a little later, though the early references I can uncover are British, not American. Mrs Margaret Dods, who ran the Cleikum Inn at Innerleithen in Scotland, was immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well of 1823. In 1828, in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, she noted that “The French fry sliced potatoes in goose-dripping, which has a very high relish; but before serving, drain them on a towel before the fire.” A decade later a detailed description appears:

FRENCH METHOD OF COOKING POTATOES They divide into the thinnest possible slices the potatoe [sic], raw, not boiled, and fry it in the finest olive oil or fresh butter. It then eats crimp, like the finest biscuit, and is taken, like our fried potatoes, with a dish of flesh, although also frequently, according to the French fashion, it is eaten separately, as a salad.

Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 1 May 1838. Note the old sense of eat, to have a certain consistency when eaten.

Crimp means crisp or brittle. These don’t sound like the French fries we now know — it would seem the French were serving something nearer the potato crisp or what are sometimes called game chips. A recipe from Eliza Warren — a British writer who was a contemporary and rival of the much better known Mrs Beeton — may be describing the same thing. In her Cookery for Maids of All Work in 1856, she is the first recorded user of the term by which the dish would be known for the next half century, French fried potatoes. Her recipe says: “French Fried Potatoes. — Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, and a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown colour; drain”. Both sides? That does sound more like a crisp than a French fry. (It may be the version I've come across in American recipe books under the name cottage fries or home fries.) However, a very early American recipe in Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book of 1882 under the heading “French fried potatoes” specifies, “Pare small uncooked potatoes. Divide them in halves, and each half in three pieces. Put in the frying basket and cook in boiling fat for ten minutes.” I’m told this chunky version is known in the US as country fries or potato wedges.

It’s clear that the essence of the French manner to non-native cooks was that the potatoes were deep-fried, which is after all what frite means in French. (I am told that real French frites are cooked twice in boiling vegetable oil with a rest between.) It seems Americans took over the French style of deep-frying potatoes but initially used it for chunks rather than thin slices or the thin strips we have come to associate with fast-food fries. French and Belgian frites today are usually chunky.

The first American reference I can find to the dish under the name of French fried potatoes is in the Burlington Daily Hawk Eye of Iowa for 12 December 1880. The name began to be abbreviated to French fries in the early years of the twentieth century (the first explicit mention I can find is in a newspaper of 1902).

As to frenched (a North American term better known elsewhere as julienne, which by the way has no connection with Jefferson’s chef, being about three centuries earlier than his time), this certainly describes vegetables cut into thin strips. But the earliest evidence for frenched is much later than that for French fried potatoes, suggesting it was either borrowed from the way that the potatoes were sliced or was an independent introduction. Either way, it is usual not to capitalise frenched.

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