The Mysterious Complexity Of The Common French Fry
Whether you call them French fries, pommes frites, or chips, the fried potato is one of the most elusive of foods to get right, though countless entities try and most fail on a nearly daily basis.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, September 14, 2020
It was somewhere past 2am and we were waiting beside a large truck in the middle of an ancient plaza in Oslo, Norway. We were waiting for pommes frites. They were served in a cone made of newspaper, each sliver of potato delectably thin, savory and salty, scorchingly hot and wonderfully greasy. It may have been the late hour, the volume of alcohol coursing through our veins, the cold night air, or even just the thrill of being in a foreign city, but I look back on those fried potatoes with something approaching a spiritual awakening.
There are very few things in the modern human experience that vary so widely in presentation, flavor and quality as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another, and yet somehow remain so readily available throughout the world, as to be considered common. No matter what you call them, potatoes that have been sliced, washed (twice) and fried (twice) in hot oil, are a staple snack, side dish and the most likely flotsam and jetsam found at the bottom of countless take out sacks.
It might come as a surprise to most Americans that the French and the Belgians have heated arguments about which of them invented the idea of frying potato slivers in hot oil, given that a large majority of our countrymen just assume they were invented by a clown named McDonald in Iowa somewhere, and presented as the perfect accompaniment to the hamburger and Heinz ketchup.
We have all sorts of varieties to choose such as skinny, steak, shoestring, krinkle-cut, and waffle. Nearly every kind involves salt, but other choices include old bay and other spices. Most Americans prefer ketchup to accompany them, while many Europeans require mayonnaise. The Brits like vinegar for reasons that surpass even their odd aversion to dentistry, and the Canadians cover theirs in gravy and cheese curd which only makes sense in country where moose roam free.
Now first of all, I’m talking about real fries, made from actual potatoes, not some processed paste shaped into the form a potato and coated with a shellack made in a lab in New Jersey. Fries are not curly and potatoes do not have naturally occurring coatings to make them crispy. They should also never be frozen. It’s fine if you’re trying to feed a picky toddler, and their parents are nowhere to be found, but let’s speak as adults who know food from garbage.
Regardless of how you cut the potatoes themselves, there are a few indisputable truths when it comes to the fried potato. One, is that they can be either spiritually life affirming or crushingly disappointing, in equal measures and within the same city or hour of day. There is no rhyme or reason to who makes a good fry. You can score wonders at a lunch truck and be completely shit all over in a five star hotel. It’s a bit like pizza, but that’s a story for another day.
The other indisputable truth about proper fries, is that they have the half life of a peeled avocado. Fries are either blistering hot or entirely inedible and utterly indistinguishable from the paper wrapper from your straw that you inadvertently grabbed from the bottom of the bag and shoved in your mouth. There is no middle ground, and the last fry is not nearly as good as the first fry, as they begin to immediately die upon being served.
The fact they they appear so simple, yet seem to be so difficult to master, may be one of the reasons we are so drawn to them. They are a bit like good summer corn, random sex, or a perfect golf shot. When they are good, they are so good that they brand themselves on our cerebral cortex. When they are bad, we simply think back to the good ones we had that one time, from that one place, after coming from that thing. Which is why unscrupulous merchants can continue to keep charging us for substandard fries and we don’t drag them from behind their counters and demand how they could do that to a potato.
We eat half of them and throw the rest in the trash, only to be ignored by pigeons and rats, because even they know there is a better life out there and it’s better to strive for perfection than to toil in mediocrity.