"Little fry, who made thee?"
In the beginning was the potato. How it found its way from the South American highlands into those little sacks of McDonald's fries is a long, adventurous tale, involving Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, and Thomas Jefferson. Millionaires have been made and millions more have died from dependence on that simple, innocent potato. Here, then, is the story of the spud, which reached its crowning achievement only once it had been paired with oil.
The potato seems to us today to be such a staple food that it is hard to believe that it has only been accepted as edible by most of the Western world for the past 200 years. Our story begins thousands of years ago, in South AmericaPeru, Ecuador, and the Northern part of Chile, to be exactwhere the Andean Incas first discovered potatoes growing wild in the highlands, and were cultivating them as early as 750 BC. As well as being their staple source of food, the Incas also used potatoes for telling time, treating illness and injury, and divination. They worshipped potato deities, and when potato crops failed, the noses and lips of a few unlucky Incas would be mutilated in ceremonies designed to appease the potato gods. Although the Incas did many things with their potatoes, they did not fry them. Instead, their most popular potato dish involved laying them out in the sun for a period of weeks, then trampling on them with their bare feet to get all of the liquids out. Yummy.
Potatoes were a well-kept Incan secret for thousands of years, as were the Incas themselves, until, in the early decades of the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquered the Incan empire and brought some of the strange little tubers back to Spain with them. The Spaniards, however, were not too keen on consuming what they called an "edible stone." Nevertheless, the invading soldiers in South America used the vegetable as emergency provisions, and it was there that the English were introduced to the charming spud. In 1596, Englishman Sir Francis Drake, setting sail for England after having successfully battled the Spanish in the Caribbean, grabbed up some potatoes for the trip, and made a stopover in Virginia to pick up some homesick British colonialists. One of these passengers took a sample of this intriguing plant to his horticulturist friend, John Gerard. Gerard mistakenly believed the potatoes to have come from Virginia, and, described them to the world in his 1597 Herball as Virginia potatoes. In fact, it was not for another century and a half that the potato would even set foot in Virginia, which it did only after having crossed the Atlantic ocean once more, finally arriving in North America in the hands of Irishmen settling in New Hampshire.
In fact, overseas, nobody but the Irish were willing to actually eat this hearty little vegetable. Sir Walter Raleigh was cultivating potatoes on the Emerald Isles as early as 1576, but when he presented them to Queen Elizabeth, it was a disaster: the cook served the greens to the Queen and threw away the tubers. She was not pleased, and rejected the disgusting meal. Although this was bad news for the struggling staple, it was not the only negative publicity it was to receive in Europe. The Scots found no mention of the potato in the Bible and deemed the vegetable unholy; horticulturists discovered it to be in the same family as such plants as belladonna and feared that it was poisonous; the innocent potato was even thought to be a cause of leprosy when it was found that a substance in the tuber (solanine) could result in a skin-rash. The Irish, however, could not afford to be so cautious. They were suffering from inadequate food supplies, and the tuber grew fabulously in their climate. Possibly as a result of it's popularity in Ireland and concurrent population explosion, the misunderstood potato even became known as an aphrodisiac. In 1733, the English seedsman Stephen Switzer summed up popular opinion of the potato as "that which was heretofore reckon'd a food fit only for Irishmen and clowns."
The potato arrived in Germany in 1588 and was considered suitable only for livestock and prisoners, until 1744 when King William ordered peasants to plant potatoes to save them from famine. He distributed potatoes and instructions for planting them to the lowly folk, and threatened to cut off the nose of anyone who disobeyed.
It was in Germany, too, that the potato met it's greatest ally. Antoine August Parmentier was a French chemist who served as a soldier in the Seven Years War, and was fed only potatoes while in captivity there. When he returned to France, he made it his mission to popularize the tuber, which he felt had been unjustly rejected by his countrymen. A skillful public relations man, Parmentier published a thesis, "Inquiry into nourishing vegetables that at times of necessity could be substituted for ordinary food" in 1773, and soon afterwards brought a bouquet of potato flowers to the birthday party of King Louis XVI. Graciously accepting the gift, the King promptly placed the flower in his lapel, and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, wore them in her hair, and potato flowers quickly became a fashion among the aristocracy. Still, Legrand d'Aussy wrote of the potato, in his 1783 Histoire de la Vie Privee des Francais (History of the Private Life of the French) "The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality of this food, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households."
Parmentier, however, was on a roll. He began throwing parties for the French upper-class, at which he served as many as twenty dishes at a time, all containing potatoes. Then, in a display of marketing genius, Parmentier obtained permission to plant an acre of potatoes in the French countryside. He had the plot fastidiously guarded by day, but at night left the land unsupervised. Acting exactly according to his predictions, the peasants assumed that anything watched so closely must be valuable, and they stole the plants by night. Soon, potatoes were being planted all over France. It became a staple food as well as a status symbol, and by 1813, almost one hundred and fifty years since it's introduction, the potato finally gained acceptance in Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Thanks to the French, potatoes were finally deemed chic enough to eat.
The Irish dependence on potatoes not only accounts for their great immigration to the United States after the potato famines of 1845, but also resulted in Irishmen making their way to these shores in the mid 1700's, when a crop failure resulted in the deaths of one fifth of the Irish population. These earlier immigrants brought their beloved spud to America but it received little attention. It was not until an adventurous farmer and admitted FrancophileThomas Jeffersonbegan to cultivate them that Americans developed a taste for the tuber, although some were still insisting that they were poisonous.
It was not long after this widespread embracing of the potato that some genius decided to drop slices of it into a pot of boiling fat. The identity of this individual is unknown; the French claim it was one of their countrymen, while the Belgians fiercely hold that it was one of their own who first frenched a fry. Expert opinion on this matter is divided as well. Whatever the case, by the 1830's deep fried potatoes had become a popular taste sensation in both France and Belgium. It took another hundred years for them to become a fast-food staple in the United States. Although Thomas Jefferson is rumored to have served them in Monticello as early as 1802a daring thing to do at the time, since tubers were still believed to lead to death unless the poisons were boiled out of themit was American soldiers, having been stationed in France (or Belgium, depending on who you ask) during World War I who brought back a hunger for the fried potatoes they had eaten while overseas. Although today fries are commonly eaten in many other countries, they are only associated with the Gallic culture here in the U.S.
French fries were born to be fast food. Deep frying foods in large vats of (expensive) fat is a smelly and messy task that was impossible for most people to carry out in their humble kitchens. At the beginning of their popularity, one's only chance to obtain the delectable treat was at a restaurant, whose cooking facilities were better equipped to handle such a procedure, or from street vendors in Paris and Brussels. (The first place in Paris to do this was by the bridge Pont Neuf, and thick-cut fries in France are still known as pommes de terre Pont Neuf). To this day, in Belgium, where pomme frites are considered a national treasure, they are still prepared from fresh potatoes and sold on the streets from numerous french-fry shacks, known as a fritures or frietkoets.
Given the difficulty of preparing the perfect fry, it is truly a wonder that McDonald's manages to turn out millions of them each day. But that, too, was a process that took decades to perfect. A long, long time ago, when the McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant in Des Plaines, Iowa, the fries they served were made from fresh potatoes, but unlike today, they were not all uniformly yummy. Sometimes limp, sometimes greasy, sometimes too dark on the outside and not cooked enough on the inside, the path to total fry perfection constantly eluded them. The little restaurant quickly developed into a large food chain, but the brothers remained frustrated with their fries. They began pouring millions of dollars into research. At first, they tried to establish the perfect temperature for frying. What they found was that different batches of potatoes would reduce the temperature of the oil they were hurled into by different amounts. Fixing the frying equipment was not going to help this problem. Instead, they discovered that the variance was due to how long the potatoes had been stored before they met their fate in the fryer. The spuds that had been waiting for longer periods cooked up better than those that went immediately into the fryer. Curing potatoes for exactly three weeks prior to frying them became standard practice, allowing for enough of the spuds sugars to be converted into starches. Without this waiting period, the sugars in the potato make the fry turn brown too quickly.
But McDonald's potato predicament was far from over. There were questions about the best shortening to use, how to cultivate the right breed of potato that would contain the perfect amount of solids to water ratio, and whether to switch over to the two-step frying method (which had been used in Belgium for years). In 1957, the company even opened a research lab dedicated to turning the production of fries from an art into a science. The labs developed a potato computer, used to this day, which could monitor the temperature of the frying oil and notify the operator when a batch of fries was perfectly cooked. Flawless French fries had finally become a reality.
Today, French fries account for more than one-fourth of all potatoes sold in the U.S. marketover six million pounds of potatoes are processed into frozen fries annually. Twenty-five percent of kids report eating French fries instead of other vegetables, and the average American eats thirty pounds of the greasy things in a year. The potato has come from being reviled to being revered, and is now the second most popular staple food in the world. So the next time someone says, "You want fries with that?", take a moment to remember the long, hard journey of the poor little spud. And answer, "Yes, thank you."