I recently came across yet another magazine article purporting to tell the history of French fries. If ever there was an impossible task, then finding out the ‘truth’ about the origin of French fries must be it. The first rule of research is to define the question, and here we have our first problem.
Do we want to know the name and whereabouts of the first person to fry a potato? And do we allow a whole potato, or must it be in pieces? And if pieces, what size and thickness? What shape? And they must be hot, surely, or they would be – if very thin – what the English buy in bags and call ‘crisps.’ And at what point of thinness are French fries entitled to be called Saratoga Potatoes?
Or, is the debate merely about the name, in which case, we need two linguistic histories. They may be French fries in America, but in everyday Britain they are ‘chips.’
Perhaps all that we want to know is the date of the first published recipe for French fries or French fried potatoes or potato chips or chipped potatoes or even simple fried potatoes? This is the only likely part of the debate to be able to be definitively decided – but not today.
I will give you a few points, such as I have concluded or gleaned over time.
As for our very first question, I feel it likely that the first person to fry a potato (or piece thereof) was the first person to find themselves in simultaneous possession of some potatoes, some fat, a fire, a pan, and an appetite. And that person’s name or whereabouts, my friends, we will never know for sure.
There are recipes for fried potatoes in La Cuisinere Republicaine, published in 1795. We know that recipes are usually in use for a very long time before they appear in print, and this is particularly true of ‘street food’ such as fried potatoes. We know also that Thomas Jefferson became sufficiently enamoured of ‘potatoes fried in the French style’ during his sojourn in Paris at the turn of that same century that he brought the idea back to the United States. To invoke another celebrity, one of the early uses of ‘chips’ of potatoes is ascribed to Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in the phrase “Husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”
The first recipe that I am aware of for fried potatoes in an American cookery book is The Virginia House-wife, (1824) by Mary Randolph:
To Fry Sliced Potatos.
Peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peal a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils and is still, put in the slices of potatos, and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with very little salt sprinkled on them.
The first that I know of for ‘chips’ is the following, from Practical and Economical Cookery, by Ann Smith (1858)
Peel the potatoes and wash them clean, then peel them again with a sharp knife; if possible, make only one peel of the whole potato; throw them into salt and water; when you think you have enough for a dish, take them out and lay on a cloth to dry; have some fat boiling in a stewpan and throw them in; when a fine brown and crisp, take them out with a slice, lay them on a sieve; when all done, dish them up on a napkin. You must not put too many in the fat at a time, or they will not crisp.
This recipe indicates that, as in the Randolph recipe, it is long, thin, curly strips of potatoes that are fried – a very elegant form of potato chips indeed, and not at all what you would want to accompany your burger or battered fish.
Please, do weigh in on the debate, preferably via the comments, so we can all enjoy the discussion.