You’re no doubt familiar with French fries. But if you’ve ever traveled to Belgium, then you’ve likely heard a different story about this snack. That is, fries are not French. They are Belgian.
According to the Belgians, fries originated in Belgium. The French contest this claim, and research into the history of the popular fried potato doesn’t shed any light on the issue.
French fries got their name from Americans
A common story is that the name “French fries” is derived from World War I. American soldiers in the Belgian city of Namur supposedly ate fries for the first time. Namur is in the francophone part of Belgium, so the American soldiers, believing they were in France, dubbed the snack “French fries.”
This telling is supported by chef and co-author of Carrément Frites, Albert Verdeyen. He claims that fries made their first recorded appearance in Namur in 1680. As the Namur story goes, one particularly harsh winter the people of the city were unable to fish because the river froze over. Instead of eating and frying the fish, they sliced up and fried potatoes instead.
French fries are French?
The tale of Namur and the American soldiers would do nicely as the fry’s origin story. The trouble, however, is that this can’t quite be verified. A French culinary historian, Pierre Leclercq, contends that fried potatoes were actually introduced as Parisian street food in the late 18th century.
It’s difficult to know what constituted in the past what we today call a “French fry.” The existing variations for fries make tracing their origin almost impossible. So French historians don’t dwell too much on their origins. Fries are already known worldwide as French fries. If we all knew and loved the rectangular fried potatoes as Belgian fries, the French might not be so laissez-faire about the fry’s history.
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Fries and modern Belgian gastronomy
The Belgians have realized that reaching into the past for the fry’s authenticity isn’t working. So they’re emphasizing its modern cultural importance instead. In fact, there is a petition from the company Natura to register the classic fries served in a cone with mayonnaise on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Read more about UNESCO sites in Belgium.
Getting on the UNESCO list might be a tough sell for Belgium since fries are popular all over the world. British fish and chips, Canadian poutine, French steak-frites, the U.S. adding fries as a popular side dish, are just a few classic examples. But Belgians are quick to point out that only Belgian fries are commonly served as their own meal.
The iconic cone of fries, topped with mayonnaise and sold as street food, is a symbol of Belgian gastronomy. At least, that’s what they’re petitioning UNESCO for. Belgium was added to the list in 2016 for its beer culture. Is it a far cry to add Belgian fries too?
You may wonder why all this debate over fries even matters. Once you taste your first fries in Belgium, though, you won’t be wondering any longer. Belgian fries are just that darn good.