Take Me to the Fries!

Table of Content

“Little fry, who gave birth to you?” The potato’s inception can be traced back to the highlands of South America. Its conversion into McDonald’s fries is a captivating tale entwined with the adventures of Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, and Thomas Jefferson. Innumerable fortunes were amassed and lives lost as a result of the reliance on this unassuming potato. Hence, this is the narrative depicting how the spud attained its ultimate triumph when it joined forces with oil.

The potato, a staple food, has been acknowledged as consumable by most Western countries for just two centuries. However, its roots can be traced back thousands of years to South America – particularly Peru, Ecuador, and Northern Chile. It was in these areas that the Andean Incas initially encountered potatoes growing naturally in the highlands and began cultivating them around 750 BC.

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In addition to serving as their main source of sustenance, the Incas utilized potatoes for timekeeping, healing ailments and injuries, and prophecy. They held potato deities in high regard, and during ceremonies aimed at pacifying the potato gods, a select few unfortunate Incas would have their noses and lips mutilated if potato crops failed. Despite the many ways in which the Incas utilized potatoes, frying them was not among their practices. Instead, their favored method of preparing potatoes involved sun-drying them for several weeks and then vigorously crushing them with their bare feet to extract all the fluids.

Yummy. Potatoes were a well-kept Incan secret for thousands of years, as were the Incas themselves, until, in the early decades of the 16th century, the Spanish conquered the Incan empire and brought some of the strange little tubers back to Spain.

The Spaniards, however, were not too keen on consuming what they called an “edible stone.” Nevertheless, the invading soldiers in South America used the vegetable as emergency provisions, and it was there that the English were introduced to the charming spud.

In 1596, Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman who had just defeated the Spanish in the Caribbean, packed potatoes for his journey back to England. Along the way, he stopped in Virginia to collect some British colonists who were longing for home. One of these passengers shared a sample of the fascinating plant with his horticulturist friend, John Gerard. Mistakenly thinking the potatoes were from Virginia, Gerard documented them in his 1597 Herball as Virginia potatoes.

In fact, the potato did not reach Virginia until a century and a half later. It arrived in North America through Irish settlers in New Hampshire, after crossing the Atlantic once again. Interestingly, only the Irish were willing to eat this robust vegetable overseas. Sir Walter Raleigh had started growing potatoes in Ireland in 1576, but when he offered them to Queen Elizabeth, it ended in failure as the cook mistakenly served the greens to the Queen and discarded the tubers.

Despite being rejected by a displeased person, the repulsive meal was not the only negativity the struggling staple received in Europe. The Scots, who considered the potato unholy due to its absence in the Bible, along with horticulturists who feared it was poisonous as it belonged to the same plant family as belladonna, added to the potato’s negative reputation. Additionally, it was mistakenly believed that the potato could cause leprosy because of a substance called solanine found in the tuber that could lead to a skin rash. Despite these concerns, the Irish did not have the luxury to be cautious.

They suffered from a lack of food and the tuber grew exceptionally well in their climate. It was even believed to be an aphrodisiac, possibly due to its popularity in Ireland and the concurrent population growth. In 1733, Stephen Switzer, an English seedsman, summarized the common view of the potato as “previously considered a food only suitable for Irishmen and clowns.” The potato was introduced to Germany in 1588 and initially seen as only suitable for animals and prisoners. However, in 1744, King William ordered peasants to cultivate potatoes to prevent famine.

He distributed potatoes and instructions for planting them to the lowly folk, and threatened to cut off the nose of anyone who disobeyed. It was in Germany, too, that the potato met its greatest ally. Antoine August Parmentier was a French chemist who served as a soldier in the Seven Years War, and was fed only potatoes while in captivity there. When he returned to France, he made it his mission to popularize the tuber, which he felt had been unjustly rejected by his countrymen.

A skillful public relations man, Parmentier, published a thesis titled “Inquiry into nourishing vegetables that could be substituted for ordinary food in times of necessity” in 1773. Shortly after, he presented a bouquet of potato flowers at King Louis XVI’s birthday party. The King graciously accepted the gift and adorned the flower in his lapel, while Queen Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair. As a result, potato flowers swiftly became a trendy choice among the aristocracy.

In his 1783 Histoire de la Vie Privee des Francais (History of the Private Life of the French), Legrand d’Aussy described the potato as having a pasty taste, natural insipidity, and being unhealthy, flatulent, and indigestible. As a result, it was rejected by refined households. However, Parmentier took a different approach. He hosted parties for the French upper-class, serving up to twenty dishes at a time, all made with potatoes. Furthermore, Parmentier secured permission to plant an acre of potatoes in the French countryside, showcasing his marketing genius.

During the day, he carefully guarded the plot, but at night he left it unattended. As he predicted, the peasants believed that anything closely watched must be valuable and they stole the plants at night. Consequently, potatoes started being planted all over France. Eventually, potatoes became a staple food and a symbol of status. By 1813, after almost 150 years since their introduction, potatoes were finally accepted in Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. The French merit the credit for making potatoes fashionable enough to be consumed.

The primary reason for Irish immigration to the United States was their dependence on potatoes, which can be traced back to the potato famines of 1845. These famines caused a significant increase in Irish immigrants. However, even before these famines, Irishmen had already started migrating to America in the mid-1700s due to a crop failure that killed one fifth of Ireland’s population. These early immigrants brought potatoes with them, but American interest in this vegetable didn’t grow until Thomas Jefferson, an adventurous farmer and self-proclaimed enthusiast of French culture, began cultivating potatoes. Despite this, there were still some who believed that potatoes were toxic.

The debate over the origin of deep-fried potatoes, also known as fries, is ongoing. The concept of cooking sliced potatoes in hot fat was a brilliant idea, but the identity of the innovator remains unknown. While the French argue that one of their own came up with it, Belgians strongly believe that it was a fellow countryman who introduced fries first. Experts have differing viewpoints on this matter. By the 1830s, deep-fried potatoes had become a sensation in both France and Belgium. However, it would take another hundred years for fries to gain popularity in American fast-food culture.

Although Thomas Jefferson purportedly served them in Monticello around 1802, which was quite bold at the time as potatoes were thought to be poisonous unless prepared properly, it was American soldiers stationed in France (or Belgium, depending on who you ask) during World War I who reintroduced a craving for the fried potatoes they had enjoyed abroad. While fries are now popular in numerous countries, they are solely linked to French culture in the United States.

French fries were originally created as a form of fast food. However, the process of deep frying them in large amounts of expensive oil was difficult for most people to do in their own kitchens. At first, the only way to enjoy French fries was either at a restaurant with better cooking facilities or from street vendors in Paris and Brussels. The very first place in Paris to sell them was near the Pont Neuf bridge, and in France, thick-cut fries are still referred to as pommes de terre Pont Neuf.

Belgium, known for considering pomme frites a national treasure, still prepares them from fresh potatoes and sells them on the streets from various french-fry shacks called fritures or frietkoets. It is impressive that McDonald’s can produce millions of fries every day, considering the challenge of achieving the perfect fry. However, it took McDonald’s decades to perfect this process. When the McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant in Des Plaines, Iowa, the fries they served were also made from fresh potatoes, but they were not consistently delicious like they are today.

The brothers struggled to achieve fry perfection, facing inconsistency with limpness, greasiness, and uneven cooking. Although their restaurant chain grew, they remained unsatisfied with their fries. To solve this, they invested millions in research. Initially, they focused on finding the ideal frying temperature. However, they discovered that various batches of potatoes caused the oil temperature to decrease differently during frying.

Fixing the frying equipment was not going to solve the issue. Instead, it was found that the variation in cooking quality was caused by the duration for which the potatoes were stored before being fried. Potatoes that had been stored for longer periods cooked better than those that were fried immediately. The practice of curing the potatoes for precisely three weeks before frying became commonplace as it allowed sufficient conversion of the sugars in the potatoes into starches. Without this waiting period, the sugars in the potatoes cause the fry to brown too quickly.

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Take Me to the Fries!. (2018, Feb 28). Retrieved from


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