French fries – or in England, chips – originated in Belgium

A number of years ago, my girlfriend had the opportunity to travel to London, with her sister and brother-in-law. One night, they were relaxing in a pub over some drinks, when the sister decided to go to the bar and get some chips.

“Sorry, love. The kitchen’s closed,” the bartender apologized.

She returned to the table, completely baffled. “All I asked for were chips,” she said. “They said they couldn’t give us any, because the kitchen was closed.”

“They call those ‘crisps’ here,” my girlfriend told her. “Chips are French fries.”

It’s kind of novel that there should be any linguistic confusion over such a mundane food item, but that seems to have been the case since the beginning. Even the phrase “French fries” is misleading, because they don’t come from France.

The earliest known records of frying potatoes in this fashion come from Belgium, where villagers along the River Meuse habitually ate small fried fish. When the river froze over every winter, they were forced to find other sustenance. The 17th century brought with it the potato, which kept well over the colder months, and could be sliced into small pieces and fried.

By the time World War I rolled around, this seasonal trend had become an ingrained habit, and American servicemen became quite fond of the treats, transporting the recipe home and giving them their present nomenclature.

Actually, this wasn’t the first time French Fries had appeared on these shores. The noted epicurean Thomas Jefferson introduced them first, having enjoyed them while serving as American Minister to France from 1784 to 1789. While there, he had his slave, James Heming, trained as a chef. Among other favorites, such as vanilla ice cream and macaroni and cheese, he transcribed the recipe for “pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches,” or potatoes, cut small and deep-fried while raw. They didn’t really gain any foothold in the popular palate here until the 1870s, and even then it was limited. The French Fry only became prominent in America in the 1920s.

Back across the pond, meanwhile, the British readily embraced this humble comestible, pairing it with fried fish, and creating that iconic dish, Fish and Chips. It’s believed that the first shop to feature this dish was owned by one John Lees, who was selling them out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire. There is actually a plaque there, commemorating the historic event. The popularity of Fish and Chips peaked in the 1920s, when there were some 35,000 chippies operating in the country. Sadly, there are less than a third of that number left, as the British dish faces increasing competition from burgers, pizza, and Indian food.

People have their own varying ways of enjoying chips, depending from where they hail. Here in America, ketchup is the condiment of choice, while the Dutch enjoy dipping them in mayonnaise. French-Canadians have their Poutine, of course, adding cheese curds and smothering them in gravy. The British generally settle for salt and malt vinegar, though they do have the infamous Chip Butty, where a fistful of chips is jammed between two slices of buttered bread.

Honestly. Would I lie to you?


– 4 large potatoes, preferably russet

– sunflower oil, for deep frying

– flaked sea salt

– malt vinegar

Peel the potatoes and cut lengthways into roughly half-inch slices. Cut each slice into fairly thick chips and rinse in a colander under plenty of cold water to remove excess starch. (If you have time, it’s worth letting the chips soak in a bowl of cold water for several hours, or overnight.) Pat dry with kitchen paper.

Heat a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan half-full of the sunflower oil to 270 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important to use a cooking thermometer and check the temperature regularly. Alternatively, use an electric deep-fat fryer.

Using a large, metal, slotted spoon, gently lower half the chips into the hot oil and stir carefully. Fry for ten minutes, or until cooked through but not browned.

Remove the chips from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain on plenty of kitchen paper. Repeat the process with the remaining chips. (The chips can be left for several hours at this stage.)

When ready to serve, reheat the oil to 375 degrees. With a slotted spoon, lower all the par-cooked chips gently into the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Makes four servings.

Recipe courtesy BBC.