The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: French fries! Are they really French? Do you want them with that? Let’s devour some French fries facts and history.
Lie #1: They’re French
They’re Belgian, created toward the end of the 17th century by fishermen who sliced potatoes and fried them in the same way as fish. The people who came up with, and really clung onto, the name “French fries” were American soldiers in Europe in the First World War. In their slight defense, a lot of French is spoken in Belgium, and Belgium isn’t huge, and alliteration is fun.
Belgium is the home of Tintin, France is the home of Asterix. Belgium is Poirot, France is Clouseau. Belgian buns, French bread.
Of course, neither France nor Belgium would have fries without potatoes, which come from South America. There are mentions of frying potatoes dating from earlier in the 17th century, although whether they were strips or chunks has been lost to time.
None of these early versions would be recognizable to us as fries, really — deep-fat frying only became widespread 200 or so years later. The whole “crispy outside, fluffy inside” thing comes from being deep-fried at two different temperatures, a fairly modern innovation.
In other words, if you were served a helping of 17th-century fries with a 2021 burger, you’d be livid.
Lie #2: Fast Food Workers Are Always Saying, ‘Do You Want Fries With That?’
Are they? Since McDonald’s introduced Extra Value Meals in 1991, they’ve been much more into offering you the full meal option than just fries. According to the New York Times, the profit margins on both fries and drinks are huge — 80 percent to 90 percent profit, compared to a burger’s 15 percent profit — and both are sold vastly more in meal combos. You are much more likely to be asked if you want the meal than if you want two-thirds of the meal.
The phrase, “Do you want fries with that?” has just stuck around, both as the easiest way to demonstrate the meaning of “upselling” and — like “McJob,” “burger flipper” et al — a shitty punchline to shitty jokes intended to insult people by suggesting they work in the service industry.
Lie #3: In Hindsight, the Whole ‘Freedom Fries’ Thing Was Stupid
It was stupid when it was happening. Deeply, deeply, deeply fucking stupid.
For anyone lucky enough to forget this exercise in dumbassery, in 2003 there was a lot of anti-French sentiment in the U.S., because France was opposed to the invasion of Iraq — something history has proved them to be entirely correct about. Nonetheless, they were seen in jingoistic circles as a nation of effete, fun-ruining cowards, and a huge swathe of anti-French sentiment swept the country. The makers of French’s mustard had to put out a press statement clarifying that they were an American product and it was just a name, while even the classiest of newspapers bent over backwards to point out that actually, France was shit, actually. The editor of the Wall Street Journal wrote that France had been in decline since 1815 and was just unhappy about it, while the New York Times argued “France is so caught up with its need to differentiate itself from America to feel important, it’s become silly.”
(Again, the issue being discussed was the invasion of a country. It’s not like America was having a costume party and France refused to stick to the theme — lives were at stake. Misreading a mustard label and getting angry is a lot sillier.)
This “France sucks!” sentiment also manifested itself on menus, with French fries being rebranded as Freedom fries, first in a restaurant in North Carolina then, after that got extensive press coverage, more and more places. Bob Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, directed the three cafeterias within the House to change the name of fries on their menus due to France’s “continued refusal to stand with their U.S. allies.”
The renaming was done in a big overexcited fit of flag-waving and pulsing forehead veins — the freedom of France to make its own judgments about whether an invasion was a good idea wasn’t really considered, of course, because that was a French freedom and so therefore stupid and gay. France was extremely classy about the whole thing, focusing on the events shaping the global political landscape and affecting millions of lives, rather than making some stupid declaration that they were court-martialing Captain Crunch.
Meanwhile, even in the States it was seen as really dumb. Representative Barney Frank told the New York Times: “Making Congress look even sillier than it sometimes looks would not be high on my priority list. There’s a potential war going on. … I think self-caricature is a poor substitute for thoughtful discussion.”
It didn’t take too long for things to calm down enough for people to wind it all in a bit and give fries their old name back. A 2005 survey found two-thirds of Americans thought the renaming was silly. Ney’s career later ended in tatters after accepting bribes, the big turd, and the menus within the House got the word French back while Ney did 17 months behind bars for, again, being a turd.
Toby Keith’s bar chain (turns out Toby Keith has a bar chain — currently a chain of two, following 20 or so closures in the last couple of years, but a chain with two links is still a chain, sort of) stuck with it for a while, but even their menus now merely say “Fries.”
And so, a mistake made on menus came to a stereotypically French end.
Lie #4: ‘One Large Fries, Please!’
How large are those fries really? If you think you’ve seen a large fry, think again — you’ve probably seen a large amount of average-sized fries and got confused. The world’s largest large fry weighed over 24 pounds, and was created in India in 2018 by Chandresh Bayad. Rather than being sliced out of one potato — impossible, such a potato would devour us all — a large amount of potato was molded and shaped into one giant fry.
As well as doing the world’s largest large fry, Bayad also produced the world’s largest large fries, breaking the world record for the largest serving of fries ever by walloping 1,450 pounds of fries together and proclaiming it to be one serving.
Lie #5: ‘Yes, We Do Have Hamburgers and Fries in England, But We Call French Fries ‘Chips’!’
They’re different, Ringo, you big fibber. Chips are generally cut thicker, only fried once and vaguely recognizable as having started off as a potato. Fries are thinner, fried twice and made to be as uniform as possible. Fast food outlets in the U.K. sell fries; chip shops sell chips. In Ringo’s defense, fries were less ubiquitous in the U.K. in 1991 when his Simpsons episode was broadcast, and he was 25 years behind on answering fan mail — taking time to go into the nuances of frying temperatures wouldn’t have been the most efficient use of his time.