The latest McDonald’s French fry experiment might turn out to be a very popular one indeed.
Everyone is familiar with McDonald’s iconic French fries–those delectable hot slivers of crispy potato that taste amazing hot out of the fryer. And, just when you thought that those fries would never change, it appears you might have thought wrong.
According to a Friday report in QSR magazine, McDonald’s has brought an entirely new kind of French fry to its global headquarters restaurant in Chicago:
Sweet potato fries.
As it turns out, sweet potato fries are not new to McDonald’s–they have been available in the Netherlands for some time. However, they are new to this country and they can now be purchased as a side order to any other McDonald’s items sold at the global headquarters restaurant.
While I’m personally not a fan–I much prefer the standard fries–many people (including my wife and kids) think that sweet potato fries are all that and more. In addition, sweet potatoes are marginally healthier than regular potatoes (they have more fiber and rate a bit lower on the glycemic index), which is a bonus.
While it’s not yet known whether sweet potato fries will be introduced more widely, given their popularity, I personally wouldn’t be surprised if they one day land on the menu of every McDonald’s restaurant in the United States.
This potential move by McDonald’s follows others that were recently introduced or are still in the works.
According to a report by Crain’s Chicago Business, Impossible Foods–one of the leading manufacturers of plant-based burgers–“is teaming up with a local food manufacturer that is a key supplier for McDonald’s.” This would seem to indicate that McDonald’s is making plans to introduce its own meatless burger in the company’s U.S.-based restaurants–likely within the next year or so.
McDonald’s has been selling meat-free burgers for some time…in Europe. After testing in Sweden during fall 2017, the McVegan burger–featuring a soy-based patty that was created by McDonald’s with Swedish vegan food company Anamma–the item was permanently added to the menu of McDonald’s restaurants in Finland and Sweden in December 2017.
According to news reports, 150,000 of the vegan burgers were sold in just one month. And in January 2019, McDonald’s introduced a vegan McFalafel in Sweden, meatless “chicken” nuggets in Norway, and a vegan Spicy Veggie Wrap in the U.K.
And, of course, it was also recently reported that McDonald’s is going to make a stunning change to its menu–introducing four new international items to its U.S.-based menu, beginning next summer. This move comes on the heels of McDonald’s very successful introduction of its Worldwide Favorites Menu, which included offerings from Spain, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.
More specifically, the four new items in the Worldwide Favorites Menu 2.0 are expected to include:
- Savory Ranch Burger (Mexico)
- Grand Premium Chicken Sandwich (France)
- McChicken McMuffin (Japan)
- Caramel Brownie McFlurry (Canada)
According to reports, the new Worldwide Favorites Menu 2.0 will be initially tested in approximately 100 Connecticut-based McDonald’s restaurants sometime this month. If successful, the new items will go on sale nationwide next summer.
In any case, it’s clear that McDonald’s continues to innovate its food offerings to stay one step ahead of the competition. We’ll see if these new sweet potato fries make it out of the test kitchen and into the kitchens of the 14,000 or so McDonald’s restaurants across the country.
My new book of essays, as presented to the Chicago Literary Club by me over the past 15 years, has just been published. It contains two essays on the history of fries and several more that touch on this topic, among a kaleidoscope of other subjects from my travels and research. Available now on Amazon Books, Barner and Noble (bn.com) and from the publisher, Booklocker.com.
My first book will be published within the next month or so, and it is an anthology of my essays presented before the famed Chicago Literary Club in each of the 15 years I have been a member. Most of these were presented after club dinners at the aptly-named Cliff Dwellers Club, on the 22nd story, overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
The topics of the essays range widely: from fries, to Kenya, to Toyotas, to beacons, to Sam Johnson and James Boswell, to political colors, to spokesmanship, to changing office culture, to Belgium frikots to breakfast with Mr. McDonald, to name a few.
Below is my Introduction to APPLE PRESSINGS. Stay tuned for more, as publication approaches.
I came to think of these writings as the apple pressings of my mind.
In making apple cider, pressings are the remains of the crushed apples after the juice is squeezed out by a press. The essays herein were written at our Wisconsin retreat, Applewood Lodge, thus named because there are more than 200 apple trees of miscellaneous lineage spread across the property. They, or their antecedents, were likely planted by the owners of the fairly ancient house, now reduced to an overgrown foundation of large boulders, which once stood near the entrance,
Not long after Vicki and I acquired Applewood and built our weekend country house in 1989, I put together a traditional hand-operated wooden apple press, in hopes of teasing succulent fresh apple cider from the red, green and yellow apples adorning our trees every fall. Grinding the apples was sweat-busting work, thus the press has now been resting unused in our storage shed for some years.
Just as the pressings – also known as pomace or must – are what is left after the precious juice is squeezed from those hardy apples – these essays are the essence of what remains in the wake of travels, research and reflecting. The yield is these 15 essays, each completed annually between 2005 and 2019, under the auspices of the renowned and historic Chicago Literary Club, of which I’ve been a member over that time.
As for the back story of this compendium, I was invited to join the Literary Club by John Notz, a Lake Geneva friend who noted an article I’d written for a local newspaper about the winter mountain hut restaurants that Vicki and I ravenously visited in our ski trips to Arosa, Switzerland, from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s. Each of the subsequent Literary Club essays here is also preceded by a short back story on why or how I came to think it worth writing.
I retired from a full-time career in public relations at the stroke of the Millennium, at the tender age of 56. I felt like a 16-year-old on summer vacation, but with a somewhat larger allowance. Yes, I have since been guilty of filling my time with an abundance of leisure activity, but I’ve also become active with several not-for-profit organizations, founded two university award programs in cause-related community relations, and done some travel and writing, much of it here, with the Literary Club.
My sweet wife of more than 40 years, Vicki, has served as my more-than-willing editor and grammatist, and our aptly-named cat, Cider, has often trod the keys in attempts to add his random edits. Each essay indicates the date presented before the Literary Club, and is reproduced as it was presented.
I hope you enjoy these sometimes-tasty, and always tart apple pressings, dried and ready for you to read, inside the covers of this non-edible volume. You might even consider it “must” reading. A glass of crisp apple cider might help them go down all the more smoothly. So, cheers, and enjoy!
Of the many ways to describe Chicago, a french fry paradise probably doesn’t spring to mind first. A city stuffed with extra-thick pizza and political corruption? Sure. But a Shangri-La of freshly cut potatoes bubbling in hot oil? Not exactly.
Perhaps you should reconsider.
While you can find great fries all over the country, the sad fact is that even when you discount most fast food chains, the majority of restaurants purchase frozen fries. It’s cheaper and easier to do so. But for some stubborn reason, Chicago is a city dedicated to fresh-cut french fries, the kind that start with actual potatoes punched through a fry cutter and then cooked twice in oil (first at a lower temperature, and then at a higher temperature). The fries that emerge from the oil sport crispier crusts and creamier insides than their frozen counterparts. Instead of tasting like oil, they capture pure potato flavor.
Restaurants at every price point and in all areas of the city serve fresh-cut fries, from fancy new West Loop spots to old-school hot dog stands. It’s so common, most people here don’t even realize how good we have it. That has to explain why most hot dog stands automatically toss in a bag of fries for free with every order.
So when someone suggested we find Chicago’s best french fries (yes, the word “french” is lowercase in this usage, more on that later), we were initially dumbstruck by the impossibility of the task. There were too many options! Our whole department would have to stuff ourselves on nothing but fries for the whole year to find the city’s best.
That’s when someone suggested a $5 price limit. Sure, it would exclude places like Hopleaf Bar and Boeufhaus, but what better way to prove Chicago’s french fry supremacy than to set such a low limit.
We figured if we worked hard, we could find 40 or maybe 50 restaurants serving fresh-cut fries under the price limit, with no chain restaurants and only regular fries (no waffle, steak, curly, etc). Hours later, the list had swelled to over a 100. (Pause for a moment to admire how incredible that number is.) These included options in both the city and suburbs, though we excluded national chains.
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We divvied up the 106 restaurants among Food & Dining reporters and editors (with help from other Tribune staffers) and got to eating. After the first round, in which participants decided thumbs up or down on each spot, we had narrowed the list to 28. For the second round, Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger revisited those semi-finalists, selecting 20 we thought were worth celebrating. To declare a winner, we embarked on round three, revisiting our top eight picks in one potato-packed day.
Along the way, we debated what makes a great french fry. Is a crispy exterior always better, or can a heavy crust cover up the flavor of the potato? Should the interior have a texture similar to baked potatoes or mashed potatoes? Do you really need condiments?
We also uncovered another reason why many of Chicago’s fries taste so good: animal fat. In a 2001 New Yorker piece titled “The Trouble with Fries,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that although the original McDonald’s was located in California, Ray Kroc developed the most popular fries in human history thanks to a hot dog stand in Chicago. “Ray Kroc, in the early days of McDonald’s, was a fan of a hot-dog stand on the North Side of Chicago called Sam’s, which used what was then called the Chicago method of cooking fries. Sam’s cooked its fries in animal fat, and Kroc followed suit.”
While McDonald’s eventually stopped using beef tallow, many places in Chicago still continue the practice, and our fries are tastier as a result.
Finally, are french fries actually French? According to the “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, “the name does not come from the fact that their origin is French, because the potatoes are ‘frenched’ — cut into lengthwise strips.” That explains why the french in french fries has not been capitalized for the entirety of this article. However, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, there’s a very real possibility that french fries may have first developed around Pont-Neuf in Paris in the late 18th century. But the book is quick to point out that many people disagree with this statement, and that the “Belgians are anxious to claim the honour of invention.” In other words, who knows? Still, even with an obnoxious dalliance with calling them freedom fries earlier in the century, the name has stuck.
While french fries definitely weren’t invented here, it’s our humble opinion that Chicago should finally get the attention as an epicenter of the french fry arts that it so rightly deserves. Here are 20 reasons why.
Don’t be tempted by the curly fries on the menu. Those come from the freezer. Instead, make sure to order the fresh-cut fries, which have a delicate crunch and a soft interior. They are the ideal partner with the restaurant’s thinly sliced Italian beef, which is also made in-house.
Shoestring fries with delightful dipping sauces. From the owners of Mott Street restaurant comes the cutest french fry experience I had in our quest. Don’t let the pink tray fool you. The fries themselves were tiny but mightily tasty, crisp yet retaining a soft potato nature. Help yourself to ketchup, hot sauce and chipotle aioli. The “naked” fries are also available dressed with oil poached garlic, which they offered kindly as a convincing taste on the side.
Dave’s Red Hots
Old-school neighborhood fries. This is the oldest hot dog restaurant in Chicago, with a history dating back to 1938. The building may be boarded up upstairs but that doesn’t deter the steady stream of customers in Homan Square. I don’t remember if owner Gina Fountain actually called me sweetheart, but it was understood. As is her family’s thoughtful care with the fries. Fat and satisfying, they bear a burnish comparable to the original wooden booths, and a soul as true.
3422 Roosevelt Road, 773-722-9935
The Region specializes in an ultra-smashed burger style that you’ll encounter most often around Northwest Indiana at places like Schoop’s. But unlike that south suburban chain, The Region makes its own fries, instead of using frozen spuds. These are cooked until nearly brown, picking up a distinct roasted aroma along the way.
It’s not exactly a rule, but you can usually expect delicious things if an establishment hangs a neon sign in the front window advertising its fresh-cut fries. Talk about good priorities. It’s also nice to see some large boxes of potatoes stacked in the kitchen, just waiting to be cut and fried. Sure enough, these fries are incredibly satisfying, with a crust that stays crisp even after cooling down.
5313 Lincoln Ave., Skokie, 847-674-4067
The Burger Moovment burger joint is all about keeping its food thin. The burgers feature beef patties that have been smashed on a hot griddle, and its fries are skinny, hovering in between the thickness of the kind you’d find at McDonald’s and super thin shoestring fries. Even though they are crispy on the outside, they somehow stay soft within.
The Burger Social
This trendy burger joint in Wheaton spends a lot of time on its website discussing its burger. As it should. It’s a great big juicy offering, which uses beef from local producers. But Burger Social should also highlight the fries, which come out of the kitchen with a gorgeous blond hue. Each one also has a remarkably crisp crust, with a pleasing baked potatolike interior.
Super crunchy fries ready to rock. If you’re worried about the loud music played with Brgrbelly’s rock and roll theme, rest assured the baby at the next table slept in his carrier at this family friendly restaurant. Husband and wife co-owners Steve and Nicole O’Brien opened in Portage Park six years ago, weathering the neighborhood’s changes. Through it all the burgers starred but the fries deserve a solo too. A nearly crazy potato chip crunch breaks through to a soft and tender finish. Get mayo as a dip like you’re back from a European tour.
Susie’s is probably best known for its creatively topped loaded fries. Cheese, chili, chicken, gyros, Polish sausages, bacon— you can get it all and then some on top of your fries. But it turns out that the fries underneath deserve attention, too. They have a remarkably thin crust, which gives way to a supremely soft interior. Instead of salt, they are given a shake of seasoning salt, which adds an unexpected flavor profile — a little spicy and weirdly savory — to each bite.
Lucky Burger And Grill
This Vegas-themed shop in Mundelein serves textbook fresh-cut french fries, with a crunchy exterior and a fluffy interior. The restaurant cooks the fries in vegetable oil, but the owner let me know he changes that oil often, because old oil can lead to off flavors. Sometimes it’s the simplest things, like making sure you’re using fresh oil, which distinguish good fries from the truly memorable ones.
Bob-O’s Hot Dogs
Clean-edged classic Northwest Side-style fast food fries. A ’50s diner vibe includes memorabilia showing namesake founder Bob-O and the converted bus that the shop once called home. Phyllis Bartell and her family took over in the ’70s. Now fryer baskets filled with fries always stand ready in Irving Woods. Crisp and fluffy, these are textbook fresh-cut fries. You can help yourself to ketchup and celery salt if you like. Like all Chicago-style hot dog stands, paradoxically there are no condiment rules with fries.
Edzo’s Burger Shop
When I asked Eddie Lakin, owner of Edzo’s, what made the fries at his Evanston burger shop so good, he exhaustively walked me through every step of the process. This was an excellent sign, because it proved how much he’d considered every step. Like most places, he fries the potatoes twice, once at a lower temperature to evenly cook the middle, and finally at a higher temperature to crisp the outside. But in between, he cools the fries down, which helps make the crust that much crisper when cooked the second time.
These are listed on the menu as golden fries, and there’s really no better way to describe them. Each pale yellow fry looks seriously ready for its Instragram close-up. Fortunately, each one also has a delicate crunch, with a fluffy, baked potatolike interior. Needless to say, they also pair exceptionally well with a big, juicy burger — the only other item on the restaurant’s hilariously brief menu.
Top Notch Beefburgers
Top Notch has been doing things the old fashioned way since 1942. That means that all the beef for the burgers is ground at the restaurant, and, most relevant for this discussion, that the fries are cooked in oil laced with beef tallow. So even though the fries might appear like standard blonde-hued diner fries, they have a meaty backbone that makes them far more satisfying.
2116 W. 95th St., 773-445-7218
Gene & Jude’s
This iconic River Grove stand is a finely oiled fast-food machine that kicks out hot dogs and fresh-cut french fries at an astonishing rate. It’s mesmerizing to simply watch them dress the hot dogs with speed, before tossing on a mess of fries and wrapping up everything in paper. In fact, if you order fries separately, you throw a wrench in the machine, slowing down the process by a good minute or two. But regardless of whether you order just fries or get them piled on a hot dog, they’ll be creamy in the middle, with a delicately crisp crust. While great on their own, they do reach their maximum potential when combined with one of the stand’s hot dogs.
Rand Red Hots
On my first visit to this retro hot dog stand in suburban Des Plaines, I watched a cook shovel a huge portion of white beef tallow into the fryer. That’s the exact moment I knew the fries would be good. The tallow infuses the potato with a meaty profile, almost like the flavor of a baked potato when it mixes with juices from a steak. Of course, it helps that the potatoes are cut in house and fried twice. But it’s the flavor from the tallow that will linger after you’ve polished off the whole order.
Illinois Bar & Grill
Crunchy batons with the fry connoisseur’s coveted, crackling exploded ends. Illinois Bar & Grill is best known for the self-proclaimed best burger in Illinois, as well as one of Nick’s picks as best burger in Chicago. I say the fries alone are worth a trip across town unless you’re lucky enough to live or work in Archer Heights. Whether you’re going Friday after work or Monday morning, both actual times I visited, you’ll have to wait for your order. The reward is a gloriously bountiful basket presented with a cold squeeze bottle of ketchup. Not that you need any condiment with crunchy flavorful bits providing more than enough interest and complexity.
4135 W. 47th St., 773-847-2525
Jimmy’s Red Hots
Soft, irregular and irreverent, stuffed with baked potato flavor. This is the oldest Chicago hot dog stand in the same location, claimed “Hot Dog” Faruggia recently behind the counter at Grand Avenue and Pulaski Road. Open since 1954, Jimmy’s Red Hots, named after Faruggia’s father, Jimmy, used to fry in beef tallow, but now uses a vegetable base. I grew up a block away in West Humboldt Park, and these were my first fries ever, imprinting Proustian memories of the tallow that leaves a telltale waxy feel in one’s mouth. If your ideal fry is crisp or crunchy, these aren’t that. They are, however, possibly the closest you can get molecularly to baked potato in fry form. No ketchup, but you can request hot dog condiments and make it a meal.
Redhot Ranch’s fresh-cut fries are dished out with a stunning lack of fanfare. As soon as they are pulled from the fryer, a cook salts them, wraps them up in paper, shoves them into a brown paper bag and slides them across the counter. So why are they so irresistible? The crust has an audible crunch, which breaks into an interior that’s like the creamiest mashed potatoes you can imagine. Instead of rinsing the potatoes after cutting, a practice that removes some of the starch on the exterior, these go straight in the oil. This explains the fantastic crunch, and the curious fact that the fries sometimes latch on to each other in the oil and never let go. So don’t be surprised if you reach down for one, yet come out with three or four. Of course, Redhot Ranch also slings out an incredible double cheeseburger and a flawless minimalist-style hot dog, but you’d be silly to ignore the potatoes.
2072 N. Western Ave., 773-772-6020
Mr. D’s Shish Kabobs
Long, languorous golden bars filled seemingly with silken whipped potatoes. Mike and Ann Antonopoulos opened their one-room fast food restaurant nearly 50 years ago as immigrants from Greece. Little has changed, except their son John joined the family business decades ago. He said his father is Mr. D, but doesn’t know why. A surprising mystery since it’s just the trio who work so closely together, unless you’ve witnessed the way they work. Imagine a silent ceremony for Japanese tea, instead transforming the same potatoes that steakhouses use into edible kinetic art. These biggest bakers, twice the size and price as those typically used for fries, are sliced then dropped twice in vegetable fat and beef tallow. Sheathed like taut tempura, the first fry you bite into will release a puff of pure potato essence. The warm glow inexplicably evokes for me such strong memories of lingering over fries and wine on the Mediterranean, that stepping out the door in Montclare I half expect to see the shimmering sea.
Here are the other 86 restaurants we visited in our french fry quest:
Tribune staffers Sade Carpenter, Jennifer Day, Joe Gray, Adam Lukach, Tony Puricelli, Josh Noel, Phil Vettel and Grace Wong helped taste and evaluate the fries.
Created by the Chicago Tribune Dataviz team. On Twitter @ChiTribGraphics
Copyright © 2019, Chicago Tribune
Is it too early to declare this the ‘The Year of the Fry?’
Think about it. McDonald’s just launched limited-time cheesy bacon fries, no doubt targeting Wendy’s Baconator Fries (which, to be fair, have been around for nearly four years). Wendy’s responded to the launch by putting its version in the promotional spotlight – free Baconator Fries to anyone who ordered through the brand’s mobile app – inciting a bacon fry battle of sorts to start the New Year.
French fries have long been a quick-service staple, as well as the subject of intense debate over which brand does them best. However, a case can be made that recent launches have been different. Sexier.
Consider Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries, for example. First introduced in January 2018, the Nacho Fries quickly became the brand’s most successful product launch ever – more than 53 million orders were sold in the product’s first three months alone. The fries made up more than 30% of all Taco Bell orders, yielding both check and transaction increases.
So successful was this product launch, Taco Bell has already brought it back twice as a limited-time offer. Nacho Fries were inarguably a major factor in the chain’s strong 2018 performance.
(I condone the thought behind this radical, impractical approach.)
Yes, I do want precisely 6 French fries with that
The New York Times discovers French fries aren’t healthy — and also proposes an unexpectedly brilliant solution.
What better way to celebrate a Friday than with French fries?
Today, July 13, is National French Fry Day and plenty of places are offering free or discounted deals on everyone’s favorite crispy potato treat. Not every location participates in all promotions, so be sure to check ahead.
Here’s a look at some of the best deals and discounts for National French Fry Day:
Place an order via McDonald’s mobile app for $1 or more and receive a free medium order of fries.
Selected locations are offering free order of regular hand-cut fries with any purchase. Offer good July 13 only from open to close.
Get two small orders of fries and two Original Chicken Sandwiches for $4.99 with a coupon in the restaurant’s app.
Sign up for the chain’s emails and receive a free small fries and beverage with purchase of any One-Third Pound Thickburger.
The chain has brought back Nacho Fries.
FRENCH FRIED: FROM MONTICELLO TO THE MOON
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 Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in historic Virginia, last June, that the tour docent confirmed to me that the adventurous farmer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former ambassador to France, Jefferson, had indeed brought the french fry to America in 1802. In fact the recipe for french fries was noted in a manuscript in Jefferson’s own hand, and almost certainly came from his French chef, Honore Julien.
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 France, do they, except maybe at McDonald’s. But at your typical bistro on the left bank, they are called what? Pommes frites, the fried version of pommes de terre, literally means “fried apples.” Piled high on a sizzling platter next to a grilled steak topped with seasoned butter, we’re talking Steak Frites, right?
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.
Down in Peru, the Inca Indians were the first people known to have cultivated potatoes, as early as 750 BC. They had many uses for potatoes, which ranged in size from a small nut to an apple, and in color from red and gold to blue and black. They didn’t fry them, but they did worship them, and even measured time with them, correlating units of time to how long it took to grow a potato crop. The Spanish conquistadores came across the knobby little tubers they called “truffles” in the high Andean village of Sorocota. In 1533, Pedro de Leon discovered they prevented “scurvy,” and finding they remained fresh longer at sea than did limes, the potato quickly became standard issue to the crews of Spanish and English ships. That’s how what the Spanish came to call the “edible stone,” arrived in Europe.
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 in Virginia. One of these passengers handed a potato to a horticulturist in England, who dubbed it a Virginia potato. In Germany, there is a monument to the potato with the inscription, “To God and Sir Francis Drake, who brought to Europe for the everlasting benefit of the poor – the potato.” But it was not until the next century that the potato would actually gain a footing in Virginia.
Being a member of the nightshade family, superstitions in Europe categorized the potato as evil and poisonous, and even as a dangerous aphrodisiac. But then entered King Frederick William of Germany, where the tuber was considered only suitable for livestock and prisoners. As a deterrent to famine, the king took up the cause and ordered peasants to grow and eat it – or have their noses cut off. Ouch!
France’s Antoine Parmentier helped King Louis XIV popularize the potato in France. Parmentier, in a burst of public relations genius, created a feast with only potato dishes, a concept he found possible while imprisoned in Germany and fed only potatoes.
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 France. Then it proceeded to gain acceptance throughout Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Potatoes even led to a war. In 1778, Prussia and Austria fought a war by trying to starve each other’s army by consuming their food source, mostly potatoes. It became known as the Potato War.
It took none other than Sir Walter Raleigh to bring the potato to Ireland, when Queen Elizabeth I granted him 40,000 acres there to grow potatoes and tobacco. In 1733, an English seeds man summed up popular opinion of the potato this way: “it shall henceforth be reckon’d as a food fit only for Irishmen and clowns.” As a side note, do you know why the potato is sometimes called a “spud?” The name came from the type of spade the Irish used for digging potatoes.
It is odd to think that Sir Walter Raleigh’s contribution to the explosion of potato growing in Ireland was what led indirectly to the ultimate immigration of many Irish to America, when the potato blight hit in 1845, and a million Irish starved. The Irish had previously suffered from inadequate food supplies, so had readily adopted the tuber, which grew well in their climate until the potato famine set in. Only today is new DNA research on dried potato blossoms from that time, which had been preserved at Kew gardens, promising to identify the disease that caused the deadly potato blight.
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 America, the French and the Belgians still debate who created it first. Expert opinions are divided, but by the 1830’s deep fried potatoes were a taste sensation in both countries. Recipes for fried potatoes in French cookbooks go back at least to 1755. The first reference to french fries in English appeared in O. Henry’s book “Rolling Stones” in 1894. He wrote: “Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes.” Yet, when the controversy over Freedom Fries began, in 2003, as part of a Republican protest against France’s opposition to the war on Iraq, the French embassy claimed that the food was actually Belgian in origin.
Belgium itself lays claim as the originator of french fries, partly based on reference to poor inhabitants of an area of the Meuse valley near Liege, Belgium. They often accompanied their meals with small fried fish, but when the river froze and they couldn’t fish, they cut potatoes lengthwise the same size as their favorite little fish and fried them in oil. Even more proof arises to foster their claim in that a Belgian named Frits opened a stand selling fries in 1871, giving his own name to the product, which is the French name for the dish in Belgium to this day. Some four thousand such friekot or friture stands appear everywhere in Belgium. There, Belgium fries, made with Belgium Bintje potatoes, cooked twice and served in paper cones, are traditionally enjoyed with tangy mayonnaise rather than catsup. Today, a growing number of Belgium fry shacks or frietkots are to be found in the U.S., mostly in New York and the northeast.
Then there are the Spanish. They once controlled the area that is now Belgium and claim that the recipe for french fries first appeared in Galicia, where it was served as an accompaniment to fish dishes. From there they say it traveled aboard Spanish galleons to Belgium.
Well, to bring it back home to the USA, how did the contemporary ubiquitous french fry ever become so popular among the masses over here, given its early and elite domestic launch by Thomas Jefferson?
At the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, a potter from Athens, Texas named Fletcher Davis, who wasn’t selling enough pottery back home, opened a lunch counter. He served potato strips there, an idea from a friend back in Paris, Texas. But a reporter thought he’d said “Paris, France,” and thus another legend took root regarding the origin of the name.
French fries really took off in America after World War I, when thousands of hungry soldiers returning from stations in Northern France and Belgium, demanded them. It was “over there” that the “Doughboys” were introduced to the tasty fries.
Today, less than one hundred years later, more than 7 Billion pounds of french fries are served in America alone each year. Some 140 pounds of potatoes are consumed per person, including 50 pounds of french fries, and that’s just half of what the typical European consumes. Potatoes have become the world’s fourth largest food staple, after wheat, corn and rice. And just as Steak Frites is a dish synonymous with French cuisine, today’s “hamburger and fries” is shorthand for all things American.
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 Hamburg, Germany, where it was thought to have arrived from the eastern ports of the Baltic Provinces, as a spiced dish of raw shredded beef, “Steak Tartare.” Before that, it’s believed that nomads on the Russian Steppes developed a taste for a dish of such raw spiced chopped meat, wrapped and tenderized beneath their saddles as they rode.
It was from Hamburg, that German sailors carried their favorite meat loaf-like patty, now grilled, over to the states in the 1800’s. In 1974, shortly after I became a public relations consultant to McDonald’s, I received an international phone call from the advertising agency for McDonald’s in Germany, which was about to open up the large Hamburg market, and was looking for PR ideas. I thought a bit, and reflected on that hamburger history, and suggested their theme be “the hamburger returns to Hamburg.” When McDonald’s opened in Hamburg, the idea became an enormous hit with the local folks – those original Hamburghers.
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 in Seymour, Wisconsin, which is also home the Hamburger Hall of Fame, and another to 1895 in a Yale off-campus eatery called Louie’s Lunch.
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 America as abroad.
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 America’s biggest selling food: hamburgers, french fries or pizza?” The answer: french fries are served with 22% of all restaurant meals, and hamburgers with 17% of all meals in restaurants.
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 Idaho french fry potato, lived from 1849 to 1926, and became, with just an elementary education, one of history’s most inventive and productive breeders of plants. He conducted as many as three thousand experiments at once, painstakingly crossbreeding foreign and native species of plants, cultivating the resulting seedlings, and using grafting to arrive at new and better breeds. A hundred years after their invention his breeds of peach, plum and nectarine, to name a few, are still on the market.
But his greatest success was the Russet Burbank potato of 1871, better known as the Idaho potato. This was soon exported to help Ireland recover from the devastating potato blight of 1840-60. Even today, despite all the horticulturists who followed, Burbank’s large, hardy, fine-grained potato is unsurpassed and a staple of agriculture.
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 Spain, replacing filete russo (or “Russian beef”), after the triumph of the anti-communist General Franco, and kafe elliniko (or “Greek coffee”) replacing kafe turiko (or “Turkish coffee”) on Greek menus after the Turkish-Greek collisions of the 1920’s. So beware, Spaghetti Bolognese could become noodles with hamburger — the next time we cross with the Italians.
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 variations: in Quebec and New Brunswick, fries are the main component of a dish called poutine, a mixture of french fries with fresh cheddar cheese curds, covered with hot gravy. In the Netherlands, they like satay peanut sauce with their fries. Speaking of fries going global, a book, by Canadian George Cohon, on opening up the Russian market to McDonald’s is titled: “To Russia With Fries,” and includes a forward by Mikhail Gorbachev.
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 Washington, D.C. metro station and opened and ate a single French fry from a bag in her lap. She did this in plain view of an undercover officer, who arrested and handcuffed her, removed her shoelaces, then fingerprinted and incarcerated her for 3 hours at a police station. Her offense was eating in a metro station, for which zero tolerance applied. An adult would have received a zero tolerance citation, and paid a fine. Ansche however, as a minor, was not eligible for such a citation, so was arrested.
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 University of Wisconsin at Madison, created a new technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages, with a view to eventually feeding future space colonies. In October of that year, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in outer space.
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.