TCS Daily

'Tater Technology

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 23, 2003 12:00 AM


French (v. tr.) To cut into thin strips before cooking.

-- American Heritage Dictionary

My first memory of French fries is associated with the Blue Ridge Restaurant. It was a 24-hour place on Route 30, just west of Ligonier, Pa. There were latticed swinging doors -- just like the kind in cowboy movie saloons -- that led into the kitchen just behind the counter. The air was usually blue with cigarette smoke and in the middle of the night you would find truck drivers there, and drunks nursing coffee after the bars had closed, and tired couples in the middle of an all-night trip to somewhere.

Whatever you might have been doing some evening around Ligonier -- going to a movie, bowling, hanging out by the juke box at the Rustic Inn, or maybe going over to Latrobe to roller skate -- Blue Ridge French fries were always somewhere in the back of your mind as the way the night would end.

Nobody had come up with frozen French fries back then and some poor soul was busy all the time peeling and cutting potatoes to feed Blue Ridge's deep fryer. Golly, they were good! They had bits of skin on them the peeler had missed and they varied in size and shape. The true connoisseur spaced out the eating of the various sizes -- a thin, crisp one here, a slightly fat one there.

They were served on an oval platter with gravy. Yes, gravy. They were crisp enough to stand up to it. It wasn't some formulated, jar-born gravy either. It was good beef gravy (there might have been a little pork in there, too).

You might share a platter with your date or your pals, but you always hoped to get that last one, wipe up the remaining bit of gravy with it and savor every last bite. By the way, gravy on French fries may be a Western Pennsylvania thing. I like 'em with ketchup, too.

I mention all this because of the recent headlines: "French fry sales hit skids" (USAToday, for example). The U.S. Potato Board is concerned because retail sales of French fries dropped 10 percent over the past year. For the past half-century sales of French fries have been growing fairly steadily. Last year Americans munched $20 billion worth. That's close to a fifth of all fast food sales. McDonald's French fry sales alone account for about 7 percent of the U.S. potato crop.

Everybody's rushing forward with an explanation for the "alarming" drop in French fry sales. All the "eat healthy" propaganda has something to do with it. Suddenly, if you're walking around with a fistful of fries, people look at you like you're smoking a cigarette.

Then, too, restaurants -- including Mickey D's and other fast food giants -- have been pushing all kinds of salads, and cold sandwich places ala Subway are proliferating.

But I say, just wait, we'll get through this and get back to our senses. French fries are, as anyone familiar with food figures knows, the most popular side dish ever. Nothing comes close. Since the potato was introduced to Europe in the 1500s it has conquered all before it when it comes to putting something on the plate next to the meat.

They are tasty, rib-sticking food. And when you fry them... well some higher things beggar description. The origins of the "French fry" are somewhat obscure, but it was only a matter of time before someone cutting potatoes for the frying pan hit upon those long strips that look like a miniature stack of four-by-four lumber.

The shape is so right. Cooks fast and easy. Eats great, whether off fork or fingers. It's as if when God saw the first cook hit upon the thing, He smiled and said, "What took you so long."

The Belgians lay claim to "frenching" potatoes and frying them in the early 18th century. Thomas Jefferson is said to have tasted this delicacy while in Paris and brought the recipe home to America with him. A White House dinner during his administration featured "potatoes served in the French manner."

The English called them "chips," and probably first discovered them across the channel in Belgium. They were also the ones who first described the peculiar cutting as "frenching." There are references in Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities, for instance) to fried potatoes that were probably French fries. But it was a London restaurant owner named Joseph Malines who in 1864 created a rage for "fish and chips" that has never abated in Great Britain.

It is generally believed that American soldiers serving in Europe during World War I zeroed in on these Belgian-style fried potatoes as something that looked and tasted fairly basic and American on the seemingly exotic French restaurant menus. They started calling them "French" fries and came back home with a taste for them.

But the American author O. Henry refers to "French fried potatoes" in something he wrote in 1894. So, who knows? And who cares? The point is, we Americans eat over 4 billion pounds of French fries each year, and I'm betting that when all those exotic new salads start looking and tasting the same, and we get tired of being bullied by the anti-fat Nazis, we'll be saying, "Large order of fries, please."

Think about it. Isn't it in the Bible somewhere? Or maybe it's Shakespeare, or the Constitution. Anyway, it says there somewhere that a hamburger must be served with French fries. Likewise, fried fish, or a steak. Believe me, it's the law. Look it up.


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