There are numerous stories about the origin of fries but very few certainties. Below, a few persistent myths about the origin are revealed and simultaneously disproven.
Allegedly, British and American soldiers got to know fries on the front during World War I. Since they heard French being spoken all around them, they called them French fries. However, already back in 1865 there was an American cookery book that named French fried potatoes whereby the French fried referred to the way they were cooked. The verb to french that refers to a certain way of cutting, is often also given as an explanation for the thinly cut French fries, but the first reference to this way of cutting in cookery books is not found until the nineteen forties.
Some people believe that fries come from Russia. In the 19th century, the famous fairground snack kiosk operator Fritz after all called his large portion of fries a ‘Russe’ and his small packs of fries a ‘Cosaque’. Above all the large packets of fries were popular and the name Russe stayed.
A French invention
In the second half of the 18th century, fries were served in food stalls on the Pont Neuf in Paris. Pommes Pont Neuf are 2 cm thick fries that are still served in France even today. In 1961, historian Marie Delcourt suggested that French refugees from the Second Empire (1852-1870) brought this Parisian invention to Belgium. But Mr Fritz was already making his fries in Belgium in 1848!
A Spanish invention
Since the Spanish have a real tradition of deep-fat frying, fries connoisseur Paul Ilegems suggests that the invention of fries perhaps comes from Saint Teresa of Avilla. After all, the first reference to the potato in Spain (in the 16th century) refers to the potatoes in her convent garden.
the fish story by Jo Gérard
This is the famous story that a lot of Belgians use to appropriate the invention of fries. A manuscript from 1781 by Joseph Gérard, an ancestor of historian Jo Gérard, is said to include the following fragment:
“The inhabitants of Namur, Dinant and Andenne, especially the poor ones, have the custom to catch little fishes in the Meuse to improve their everyday diet. When the water freezes, they cut potatoes into the shape of fish and deep-fat fry them in the same way.”
According to the manuscript, this custom already existed for 100 years, thus dating the fries to 1681. BUT, this ‘family manuscript’ was never fully published. According to Fernand Pirotte, the first potatoes were not introduced in the Namur region until around 1735. What’s more, fat was a real luxury product at that time. Historian Pierre Leclercq feels it is not plausible that poor farmers would use that much expensive fat for deep-fat-frying.
What is certain, however, ...
The origin of fries cannot be traced back to just aristocratic cuisine or bourgeois cuisine nor to poor farmhouse cuisine according to historian Pierre Leclercq. However, fries and the accompanying snack kiosks undeniably have a commercial origin. The first reliable sources refer to the existence of stalls selling fries around the middle of the 19th century.
A certain Frederic Krieger came from a fairground family and called himself Fritz. During the 19th century, food was increasingly offered at the popular fairgrounds. Fritz probably started his fries stall in 1838 at the Liege fair. Letters from 1845 have been preserved with requests for a stand site at the Sinksenfoor fair in Antwerp. However, it is not entirely clear where Fritz got his inspiration for making fries. It is certain that his fries stall quickly became an enormous success.
Mobile fries stalls such as Fritz’s followed other fairground attractions from one city to the next. The first permanent snack kiosks date to the eighteen eighties. The first snack kiosk in Bruges, for example, dates from 1890. At the end of the 19th century, a snack kiosk could already be found on central squares and near to stations in numerous towns and villages. In the meantime, pommes frites were also gaining ground in restaurants. The Brussels restaurant Grand Hôtel Cosmopolite, for example, sold a portion of fries for 0.25 franks … in 1911!