Which Country Makes the Best French Fries?
Several countries make the claim, but only one is right.
When you travel as much as Michael and I do, you can’t help but ask yourself what the people on this planet all have in common. Michael says it’s our affection for our loved ones, but I know better.
It’s our love of deep-fried crap.
Virtually every country Michael and I have visited has some national delicacy that involves taking something delicious and lowering it into sizzling hot oil to make it even more delicious.
No, seriously, it’s everywhere: tempura in Japan, samosas in India, falafel in the Middle East, spring rolls in China, chile rellenos in Mexico, wiener schnitzel in Austria, fried calamari in Spain—
Okay, you get the idea.
But the most famous and popular fried delicacy that human beings have come up with to date is almost certainly the French fry.
Here is where I feel compelled to point out that French fries are very unhealthy, which the New York Times helpfully pointed out in a 2018 article, “You Don’t Want Fries with That.” I suspect this article prompted exactly zero people to change their consumption habits.
Which country is responsible for inventing the French fry?
You might think the answer is obvious because the word “French” is literally in the name, but if you think that, you’ve clearly never been to Belgium, where Michael and I recently visited.
Supposedly, one cold winter in 1680 in the city of Namur, the river froze over, so an enterprising cook fried potatoes, rather than the small fish everyone was used to — and Belgium minds were immediately blown.
Problem is, potatoes didn’t arrive in this area of the world until 1735. And fish weren’t being deep-fried anyway, so, at best, we’re talking sautéed or pan-fried potatoes.
Then again, we don’t know for a fact that anyone in France invented French fries either, except that by the end of the 18th century, deep-fried “frites” were extremely popular there, sold by push-cart vendors on the street.
But even if the French (maybe) invented French fries, it was almost certainly the Belgians — not yet a “country” but instead an area controlled half by France and half by the Netherlands — who perfected the art of the fry. At the time, this was a poorer area than France itself, and by now, cheap potatoes were a bigger part of the diet.
Which isn’t to say that French fries were cheap. Both oil and heat were very expensive, so despite being sold by street vendors in both France and Belgium, they were probably sold mostly to the rich.
Of course, none of this answers the question why they’re called “French” fries.
The truth is, no one knows. There’s a 1802 reference to “potatoes served in the French manner” being served in Thomas Jefferson’s White House. And a 1856 English cookbook refers to “French Fried Potatoes.”
In fairness, I should point out there’s also a 1629 reference to "papas fritas” — “fried potatoes” — from Spain, where potatoes first arrived from the Americas. But no one knows what these actually were either.
But now we get to the really important question: in which country can you currently get the best French fries?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Brent and Michael Are Going Places to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.