FRENCH FRIED: FROM
A Social, Political and Cultural Appreciation of the French Fry
By Charles Ebeling
Presented on October 31, 2005
© 2005 Charles Ebeling
This Halloween night’s essay is, perhaps disappointingly, not one about skulls and bones and things that moan in the night. And I hope it’s not received that way either! My topic is about one of those little things that we so often take for granted, yet one of those many small presences that make the world go ‘round, and that add some of the color, flavor and zest, if not romance, to our everyday world.
What follows is a social, political and cultural appreciation of that humble, crisp, vilified, salty, glorious and slivered bit of teased and fried tuber that is called – at least on occasion when Congress is not in a snit of geopolitical retaliation – the french fry.
As the old saying goes, it’s not wise to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. So now that our appetites are in check, let’s enter the big wide world of that very tiny, yet surprisingly powerful influence on human life.
This story is both part personal journey and part research, with a dash of whimsy thrown in for good measure. It is a personal journey in that, for years, my curriculum vitae began with this sentence: “Chuck has loved McDonald’s french fries since he was a teenager, and has been talking about them ever since.” And yes, my McDonald’s corporate bio really opened that way.
Indeed my first memory of french fries was from the time when I was 15, hanging out with some of my buddies on a bench at the new McDonald’s in LaGrange – one of the early ones in the chain – munching bag after bag of 15 cent french fries and quaffing paper cups of orange drink, watching the girls drive through the lot, long before there was any such as thing as a drive-thru.
As my disclaimer, McDonald’s – yes THAT McDonald’s of Dow Jones industrial strength and french fry fame – later paid my salary, directly or indirectly, for nearly a quarter of a century, first as a Michigan Avenue public relations consultant, and later as a member of the corporate staff at, what one author calls Hamburger Central, in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois.
I retired on the cusp of the Millennium, partly because I’d decided that working in just one century was more than enough for me. Until then, I’d been serving as the corporate communications officer and chief global spokesperson for the Golden Arches. And just for the record, as a McRetiree, I no longer speak for McDonald’s in any official capacity, other than as a McFan of the McBrand.
Notwithstanding all these disclaimers, I never had the time to become a true expert on much of the lore of the french fry, at least until now, as my professional interest in fries was primarily from an economic perspective, mingled with frequent and fully voluntary samplings in the corporate test kitchens and frequent research trips to the “field.” Hence, my comment that this story is also the product of new research, primarily on the trusty internet, but including at least one field trip, this time to the legendary and quite remarkable site of the humble fried tuber’s earliest introduction to America.
It was there, at Thomas
So tonight, I’ve brought together my professional and personal perspectives, my own culinary propensities, and new research for your after-dining pleasure, in this global appreciation of a tiny, tasty thing, called a French fry.
When I say french fry, do you
envision the word ‘french” as capitalized? If you do, you no doubt consider the
french fry to be of French origin. But they don’t call them French fries in
Ponder this, when a potato is “cut into thin lengthwise strips before cooking,” according to Webster, it is considered to have been “frenched.” The English verb “fry,” is ambiguous, and can refer both to sautéing and to deep-fat frying. The French verb it derives from refers unambiguously to deep-fat frying. Indeed, when Francophile Thomas Jefferson had his staff over at the White House serve his guests from large silver bowls of fried potatoes, prepared using a recipe he’d picked up in Paris, they became known as – riddle solved -- french fries – in lower cased ‘french’.
Of course, to complicate matters, and the entomology of the french fry is indeed a bit complex, the french fry may have actually been created in a french-speaking area of southern Belgium, which however was not to become part of France until 1830. More on this puzzle later.
With this argument about capitalization and origins of the fry itself under our belts, let’s consider the early origins of the potato. How the potato found its way from the South American highlands into those fry boxes at McDonald’s is one adventurous story, indeed, involving Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, of course, and a pair of entrepreneurial brothers named Dick and Mac McDonald.
In 1596, Sir Francis Drake
sailed for home after defeating some Spanish in the Caribbean, grabbed some
potatoes for the trip, and welcomed aboard a human cargo of homesick colonials
Being a member of the
nightshade family, superstitions in
This 1767 dinner – a
potato-eating extravaganza -- was attended by another American Francophile, Benjamin
Franklin, and Marie Antoinette, wearing potato blossoms in her hair. The feast even
included a potato liqueur. Master promoter Parmentier proceeded to plant an
acre of potatoes in the countryside, with highly visible armed guards during
day, as if the potato field were highly valuable. But, cleverly, he had it left
unsupervised at night. Peasants soon concluded that the potatoes were highly prized,
so they stole them, planted them in their own fields and soon the potato became
a staple throughout
Potatoes even led to a war.
It took none other than Sir
Walter Raleigh to bring the potato to
It is odd to think that Sir
Walter Raleigh’s contribution to the explosion of potato growing in
The potato itself made the trip to America a bit earlier, when in 1762, the governor of Bermuda sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Frances Wyatt, governor of Virginia at Jamestown. Today, the potato is grown in every state and in about 125 countries worldwide.
But, from whence comes the
french fry? Notwithstanding Jefferson’s introduction of the treat to
Then there are the Spanish.
They once controlled the area that is now
Well, to bring it back home
French fries really took off
Today, less than one hundred
years later, more than 7 Billion pounds of french fries are served in
May I make a brief diversion
to the history of the ubiquitous hamburger? As you might guess, the hamburger
traces its roots back to the great port city of
It was from
That same Fletcher Davis, who
was selling french fries at the 1904 World’s Fair, also brought along to the
fair his recipe for a ground-beef patty served between slices of home-made
bread. The ground beef sandwich was named the hamburger, as recognized by some
visitors of German descent, and the rest, as they say, became history. Of
course, there are other legends of the hamburger’s origin, one dating to 1885
Hamburgers have come a long
way since then. Are any of you familiar with the Economist magazine’s Big Mac
Index to explain international exchange rates? The Economist’s website explains
it this way, “Burgernomics is based on the theory of purchasing price parity,
the notion that a dollar should buy the same amount in all currencies.” In
their shopping basket lies a single McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger, a fast food
staple available in 120 countries. The Big Mac purchasing-power parity is the
exchange rate that would mean hamburgers cost the same in
When I first heard of the Economist’s desire to create the index, I and my associates at McDonald’s thought they were crazy, because the index would be vulnerable to criticism for ignoring price variables such as taxes, profit margins, and the cost of non-tradable goods and services. Economist editor, Pam Woodall, commented that, “If you were to look at this from a purely economic point of view, there are reasons why the Big Mac Index is a flawed measure of purchasing price parity. But what is curious is that it is actually a good predictor over time. If more investors believed in our index, they’d be a lot richer today,” Woodall concluded.
More recently, a major wire
service published results of research in the form of a question: “What is
French fries have been a secret of economic success all right, evidence McDonald’s. Here’s a quote on how important french fries were to his building of McDonald’s into the world’s largest food service organization, from Ray Kroc’s autobiography, “Grinding it Out.” “Now, to most people, a french-fried potato is a pretty uninspiring object…just something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows of milk shake. That’s your ordinary fry. The McDonald’s brother’s french fry was in an entirely different league. They lavished attention on it. I didn’t know it then, but one day I would, too. The french fry would become almost sacrosanct to me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.”
McDonald’s recipe for fries, like the finest gourmet french fry recipes, call for the classic Russet Burbank Idaho potato to be twice fried. Julia Child once called McDonald’s french fries the finest in the world. McDonald’s fries are the product of continuous research. According to former Business Week Chicago Bureau Chief, Jack Love, who wrote the definitive McDonald’s history, “Behind the Arches,” “The fabled McDonald’s french fries were no accident.” He concludes that fries “gave McDonald’s its most definitive product differentiation…and some say fries were even more important in building McDonald’s than the hamburger itself.”
Today’s french fry is
something of a wonder. Luther Burbank, the father of the
But his greatest success was
the Russet Burbank potato of 1871, better known as the
Speaking of the popularity of hamburgers and fries, the topic of nomenclature is unavoidable. I previously mentioned the 2003 flare-up that led the House of Representatives cafeteria to rename french fries as Freedom Fries, and French Toast as Freedom Toast. In fact, this silliness has come up before. As part of the anti-German sentiment during world War I, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage and hamburgers became liberty steaks. Even German measles fell to this “sick” game, becoming liberty measles. In World War II the frankfurter bowed out to the hot dog, and although frankfurter is still recognized, it is not in common use.
Other similar examples
include filete imperial (or “imperial beef”) in
More on french fry nomenclature: In a quick trip around the world, the ever-present fry is called many things. In Brazil, it’s batata frita; in French Canada, it’s patatas fritas; in Chinese Mandarin, it’s Shu Tiao (Shu for potato and Tiao for stripe or stick); in Denmark, it’s pomfritter, in Israel it’s tuganim; in Ireland – it’s chips, not be confused with crisps, which are really potato chips; in Mexico, it’s papas a la Francesca; in Poland, it’s frytki; in Swedish slang, it’s strips; and in Thailand, it’s man fa rang tod, meaning potato fries, and in Japan, a familiar-sounding furaido poteeto.
Back in the U.S., we have many names for fry variations, most descriptive and some of which you’ll recognize from your own background: there are slim shoestring or matchstick fries, crinkle or waffle cuts, hearty cottage fries or thick steak house fries (often with the skin on) , and concertina or curly fries. Then there are seasoned fries made with breading and spices, and even Burger king’s new turnabout on fried chicken called Chicken Fries, which are pseudo fries: thin strips of fried chicken served in a french fry-type box.
Then there are tasty nationalistic
Back in the U.S., in Utah and surrounding areas, french fries are often served with fry sauce that is a mixture of spices, mayonnaise and ketchup, and in many areas of our country, good old messy cheese fries are popular with the younger generation.
Speaking of messes, we’ve already looked at some of the international debates that have ranged around issues about the nationality of fries, so let’s dive a little further into some of the other issues that have been associated with the friendly French fry.
One of my favorite political photos hangs in the office of my successor at McDonald’s, Walt Riker. It’s a picture of Bill Clinton receiving the traditional welcome of new President’s by the Senate leadership. There, in the Senate dining room, sits Democrat Clinton holding out a box of McDonald’s fries, surrounded by arch Republican, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and fellow senators. Walt was then Dole’s press secretary, and came up with the idea of warming up that first meeting with Clinton by serving him the kind of egalitarian fast food lunch he’d often enjoyed as a governor.
Moving slightly away from politics, to energy, have you heard of the Green Grease Machine? It was cobbled together a few years ago, and is a van that runs on clean-burning biodiesel fuel made from cheap, readily available used restaurant vegetable cooking oil. That’s right, French fry oil. Builders claimed the van “got 1300 miles per acre.” While there’s been plenty of controversy about the health issues around french fries, now there’s also an upside to french fry oil – it could help solve the growing energy shortage. And, the exhaust smells like fries!
Today, after years of careful observation and experimentation, research is beginning to show that maybe we can sometimes have our fries and eat them too. Using basic principles of chemistry and engineering, scientists are finding new ways to make better fries that strike a balance among flavor, texture and nutrition. Their work could, eventually, propel french fries into a more modern version of perfection.
Some scientists have tried chemically engineered, low-fat oils such as Olestra to make healthier fries. Other researchers have been working to make edible coatings that will keep oil from penetrating the potatoes. Another idea on the table is to pack potatoes full of vitamins, through bio-engineering. And there is a promising new technique for making fries that are good and healthy which involves infrared energy – a sort of heat lamp. By controlling the intensity to mimic the heat transfer involved in frying, it might be possible to produce more perfect fries. Meanwhile, research continues to reduce trans-fats, while expanding nutritional disclosures and extending healthy lifestyles education programs.
On a less pedantic note, maybe you saw the McDonald’s commercials from last year’s Super-Bowl about a supposed Lincolnfry, a French fry that seemed to contain the profile of Abraham Lincoln. The fry was marketed on Ebay, and may have become the most expensive French fry of all time – it sold for $21,600. By the way, the Lincolnfry proceeds were donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities.
On another note, this time of
judicial irony, some of you may have seen that a legal case about a single
French fry recently became a factor in the Congressional hearings relating to
Judge John Roberts candidacy for the Supreme Court, and ultimately as Chief Justice.
It was the case of Ansche Hedgepath, a
12-year old girl. She was sitting in a
On appeal, Judge Roberts ruled that the arrest was legitimate. She ate that fry in obvious violation of a legitimate city ordinance, and in the clear view of a police officer. No leniency for Ansche. To Judge Robert’s credit, he did sympathize that the subway policies were “foolish,” but he upheld the lower court. That single fry did her in.
By now, you’re probably about
done in, as well. So, I’ll bring this “appreciation of the french fry” to a
close. But, I realize I’ve left out, until now, one final dimension from the
title of this essay, which again is -- French Fried: From Monticello to the
Moon. What’s this about french fries and outer space, you ask? Well, in 1995,
NASA and the
It’s a funny thing, because one of my first assignments shortly after becoming a McDonald’s consultant, some 30 years ago, was to help associate McDonald’s image, as it approached its 30th anniversary, with the space age.
One of the fun facts we worked up in support of the premise that McDonald’s menu might literally reach space one day, was to compute the number of McDonald’s french fries, strung end to end that it would take to reach the moon. To figure it out we sent for a box of fries and measured each one, then divided and determined the average length, and multiplied by the average mileage to the moon – a quarter million miles. If you’re curious, pick up a box of fries at McDonald’s, do the math, and see how close you get to 4.5 billion fries to the moon.
I’d like to take that long ladder of moon-bound french fries just one last step farther into the future, as I wrap up this voyage through history. Albert Einstein thought that perhaps the greatest challenge facing mankind is to “widen our circle of compassion” across both time and space. Our ethnic and geopolitical squabbling might pale into insignificance if our compassionate circles were wide enough, he reasoned.
So let’s no longer worry whether the little fry is French, Belgian, American or Russian, but take it with us into the future, even into space, as a tasty treat for our frail band of wandering humanity, and continue to enjoy the good little things in life.
John Calvi, in a 1982 poem called “French Fries,” perhaps said it best, in his final stanza, when he wrote:
“Some think the army, the bombs and the guns
Will one day save all of our lives,
I don’t believe it – heat up your pans
Make peace, and lots of French fries.”
So, thanks very much for coming along on tonights french fried journey, “From Monticello to the Moon.”
I wish I could have brought in some sample fries, but you know they only stay crisp for a few minutes. However, as a consolation prize, I do have a small McDonald’s gift certificate for each of you. Have a safe journey home, and no one could blame you if you stopped for some fries on the way! Happy Halloween, and goodnight.