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From Fries to Tots: A Delicious History of Fried Potatoes

Michele Debczak
master1305 // iStock via Getty Images Plus
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Are French fries really French? It depends on who you ask. Some people trace the origins of the deep-fried potato product to Paris in the late 18th century. According to legend, street vendors at the time sold crispy potato spears to passersby on the Pont Neuf—the oldest bridge in the city. Appropriately, these proto-fries were named pomme Pont-Neuf.

Spreading that origin story would be considered blasphemous in Belgium, though. There, the invention of fries is attributed to the city of Namur. As the story goes, the river Meuse froze over in the winter of 1680, preventing residents from catching and frying the small fish they usually ate with their meals. In an inspired move, they cut potatoes into the shape of fish and fried those instead. Thus, the Belgian fry was born—allegedly. This account has some problems, the biggest of which is that, according to the historical record, potatoes weren’t really a part of 17th century Belgian diets. That means if fries were invented in Belgium, it likely didn’t happen in 1680. 

Whichever version of events you believe, it’s safe to say that French-speaking countries played an important role in the history of fried potatoes. But when did tater tots enter the equation? And why did the luxury jewelry brand Tiffany & Co. sell sterling silver potato chip servers?

The Potato: From Pariah to “Potatroit”

The birth of French fries has gifted us with a whole class of fried potato dishes, from fast food to the freezer aisle. But before processed potatoes became a standard side in many cuisines, some people didn’t even consider them edible.

When Spanish explorers imported potatoes from South America to Europe in the 16th century, they were met with a healthy dose of skepticism. It was a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier who brought potatoes to the fore of French cuisine. Parmentier pulled a variety of stunts to accomplish this, such as hosting extravagant spud-themed dinners, meals that featured up to 20 courses of potatoes served different ways. Guests are thought to have included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Parmentier’s feasts may have even inspired Jefferson to serve fried potatoes at the White House when he was president. His handwritten recipe for pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches, or “potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings,” called for potatoes sliced in rounds instead of sticks. So sort of like chips, only thicker. (That’s American “chips,” by the way.) Jefferson’s pommes weren’t exactly fries as we know them today, but, he’s still often credited with introducing the food to America.

In any case, it took some time for them to take off. There are 19th-century recipes for “French fried potatoes,” and by the early 20th century, people were calling them French fries. But a global war provided an unlikely bump to the American appetite for fries. During World War I, the Potatriots (seriously) banded together to increase potato consumption, noting that the average American consumed 2.3 quarts of potatoes a week, while the average German was eating 16 quarts. As one impassioned account proposed, “We can beat them at their own food—which really isn’t theirs; it’s a native American crop. Eat potatoes instead of bread. Fight the enemy with potatoes.”

Just after the war ended, a newspaper told the story of an innovative home cook who, in light of wartime fat restrictions, had come up with a way to preserve grease by making “American” baked potatoes—what we today might know as oven fries. And when you look at suggestions for feeding American troops during World War I from a manual for army cooks, french fried potatoes are noted for being cheap and popular with troops. Sometimes they were even paired with another cheap and nourishing dish—hamburger steak.

Burgers and Fries: A Delicious Match Made in Heaven

Fast Food Restaurant White Castle Celebrates Its 90th Anniversary On Capitol Hill
Fast Food Restaurant White Castle Celebrates Its 90th Anniversary On Capitol Hill / Win McNamee/GettyImages

Today, it’s hard to find a burger place that doesn’t have fries on the menu. Burgers and fries are an iconic culinary couple, and their ubiquity as a pair can be traced back to the origins of fast food. When White Castle officially opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, it laid the blueprint, in many ways, for future fast food chains

Again, it was wartime that provided some unlikely culinary inspiration. Meat shortages during World War II forced White Castle to expand its offerings beyond its iconic sliders. They needed a side dish that was cheap, filling, and made from ingredients that could be stored for long periods of time. The potato French fry fit the bill. And while fries were easy to pump out of fast food restaurants, they were harder to make at home. After all, not everyone wants a deep fryer in their kitchen.

All this to say that fresh, hot fries were something special to the average customer. The menu item was such a hit that fries are now a staple at virtually every fast food chain that serves burgers.

Fries vs. Chips

Potato chips on a blue background
Agustin Vai // iStock via Getty Images Plus

In England, fried fish is often paired with fries, or chips (as they’re called across the pond). The first chip shops selling fish and chips together began popping up in the country in the 1860s. During the 1870s, innovations in fishing and refrigeration made the dish even cheaper for shops to produce. Fish and chips became a go-to meal for the country’s working class.

In the United States, chips are potatoes that have been sliced into very thin rounds and fried until crispy. According to the most famous story about their origin, the first chips started as an order of thicker, more fry-like potatoes. Legend has it that railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt ordered fried potatoes at a Saratoga Springs restaurant in 1853 and sent them back when they were cut too thick for his liking. The person responsible for the order was famous Black and Native American chef George Crum, who’s remembered as one of the first celebrity chefs in American history. Irked by the request, Crum supposedly sliced the next batch of potatoes paper-thin and fried them to a crisp. Vanderbilt loved the dish, and Crum’s act of potato pettiness backfired.

While the story is regarded as a myth by most food historians, potato chips were popularized in Saratoga Springs, New York. They were known as Saratoga chips in the mid-19th century and they were considered a delicacy. Chips were served in fine hotels and luxury cruise liners, and Tiffany even sold sterling silver chip servers to families lucky enough to be eating them at home. 

Hashbrowns, Tater Tots, and Beyond

Another form of fried potatoes that emerged in the 19th century are hashbrowns. The term, at least, can be traced back to American food writer Maria Parloa. In the late 1800s, she mentioned hashed browned potatoes, or potatoes that have literally been hashed up, as in chopped and browned or fried.

Elsewhere in the world, processed potatoes are shaped and fried into potato pancakes. Unlike hashbrowns, potato pancakes are usually held together with some sort of binding agent like eggs, flour, or matzo meal. Examples of potato pancakes include Irish boxties and Jewish latkes. Swiss rösti may be the potato pancake most similar to hashbrowns, as it’s made from potatoes with generally limited additional ingredients.

One of the most recent entries to the fried potato pantheon is the tater tot. French fries are directly responsible for the invention of this crispy convenience food. In 1952, brothers F. Nephi and Golden Grigg founded the Ore-Ida frozen food processing company in Ontario, Oregon. They started out making French fries were looking for a way to use up the potato scraps they were left with at the end of the day. They decided to chop up the leftover bits, season them, and shape them into bite-sized pellets. A research committee eventually dubbed the product tater tots after consulting a thesaurus. 

The name is still trademarked by Ore-Ida today, which has led to some creative alternatives from competitors. In freezer sections around the world, you can find the item marketed as hash bites, potato pom-poms, spud puppies, oven crunchies, and tasti taters. But no matter what they’re called or what form they take, the world will always have an appetite for crispy, crunchy potatoes.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.

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