PPC 68 (November 2001)
The Origin of French Fries
Karen Hess Here is a further instalment deriving from Karen Hess’ researches on the domestic manuscripts of Thomas Jefferson at Montecello. I print below a list of vegetables in French (from the Coolidge Collection), headed [in translation] ‘Vegetables with meat and au maigre’, in Jefferson’s hand. It is not dated, but internal evidence suggests that it originated during Jefferson’s occupancy of the President’s House (1801-1809) in that it strikingly links Étienne LeMaire’s, Jefferson’s maître d’hôtel) marketing reports to many of the dishes described by Jefferson himself, occasional receipts for which may be found in the various family manuscripts and receipts attributed to him. As maître d’hôtel he did the marketing and would have worked closely with Jefferson and Julien in composing the menus. I have here rationalized the French text, supplying a translation to each line. Légumes au gras et an maigre Vegetables with meat and au maigre Épinards garni; de croûtons, si l’on vent, an lait avec un peu de sucre Spinach garnished with crouton, if one wishes, with milk and a little sugar. Chicorée au blanc garnie de croûtons, si l’on vent, au lait un peu de sucre Chicory au blanc, garnished with croutons, if one wishes, with milk and a little sugar. Petis pois, an sucre, avec des coeurs[?] de laitu Peas [petits pois], cooked with sugar and hearts[?] of lettuce. Celeri, différentes façons Celery, different ways. Oeufs à l’oseille Eggs with sorrel Navets, sauce au beurre Turnips, with butter sauce. Choux, sauce au beurre Cabbage, with butter sauce. Carottes, sauce au beurre Carrots, with butter sauce. Pommes de terre frites à cru, en petites tranches [?fry till crisp] [? & sprinkle with salt] Potatoes, fried in deep fat while raw, first having been cut into small slices [?fry till crisp] [?and sprinkle with salt]. Pommes de terre à toute sorte de sauce Potatoes, with all sorts of sauces. Haricots blancs, sauce rousse aux oignons White beans, brown onion sauce. Choufleurs, sauce rousse aux oignons Cauliflower; brown onion sauce. Aitichaux, sauce rousse aux oignons Artichokes, brown onion sauce. Salsafi, frit avec un pâte, ou à la sauce au beurre Salsify, dipped in batter and fried, or with butter sauce. Omelette au lard Omelette with bacon. The annotations, here in square brackets, to the line Pommes de terre frises à crû consist in the original manuscript of two lines, one above the other, virtually obliterated by ink blots. I make no pretence of actually reading them, even as a shadow, but such instructions as I have suggested were all but invariable in receipts for pommes frites, and answer the question that Jefferson would surely have raised; further the given spaces are ample. Of all the foods that pop historians credit Jefferson with having introduced to America, that of French fries is one that just may have some historical foundation, that is, by way of his French entourage; curiously, it is the one taken least seriously. Indeed, Larry Zuckerman, in his book The Potato (p.249), dismisses it out of hand, writing: The Economist reported that Thomas Jefferson brought [deep-fried potatoes] back from Paris in the mid-1780s, following his tenure as ambassador to France; Jefferson never mentioned his find. … Moreover; if Jefferson did bring home the secret, it remained just that. … American cookbooks [are] silent on the subject. I do not find evidence of Jefferson having encountered pommes frites in France; considering his habit of writing receipts and other observations on myriad minuscule scraps of paper; that in itself is not conclusive. Where I do find mention is in the above document in his hand: pommes de terre frites, à crû en petites tranches [potatoes, fried in deep fat while raw, first having been cut into small slices]. When the French say frites, there is only one possible meaning: fried in deep fat.1 As for ‘silent’ American cookbooks, they cannot ‘speak’ if they are not consulted. I find not so much as mention by Zuckerman of Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824), much less her receipt ‘To fry Sliced Potatoes’, which calls for cutting raw potatoes in slices or in shavings and frying them ‘till they are crisp’, a receipt I believe to have come from LeMaire, almost certainly from the years of his stewardship at the President’s House. Her work went through nineteen editions by 1860. Further, Mrs Randolph’s receipt was ‘borrowed’ by the compiler of The Cook’s Own Book (Boston, 1832, p.150), only changing the tide to ‘Potatoes fried in Slices or Ribbons’, a work which appeared in endless editions in varying format down through the century. Neither The Virginia House-wife nor The Cook’s Own Book is the least bit arcane; both works have been out in facsimile for decades, long before Zuckerman did his ‘research’. I would not go so far as to claim that Jefferson introduced French fries to the United States, although considering the receipt for them in The Virginia House-wife, I could make a case for it. In any event, their history, including his connection with them, is an intriguing tale, one worthy of a short detour. Receipts for potatoes were rare in eighteenth-century France, although perhaps not quite so rare as has been thought. After only a brief search of my own holdings, I found a receipt in Menon]s Les soupers de la Cour (1755), under the title ‘Des Ceruis, Salsifix, Pommes de terre & Taupinambours’. This, in an authoritative work dealing with cuisine of the royal court, a quarter of a century before Parmentier’s crusade for use of the potato in the twilight years of the monarchy. As for pommes frites, Zuckerman appears to be under the erroneous impression that only exceedingly thin fried potato slices – potato chips, if you will – may lay claim to that term, going so far as to dismiss Alexis Soyer’s receipt in Shilling Cookery for People (1845 on) calling for frying raw potatoes that had been cut into ‘almost shavings,’ saying smartly, ‘That sounds more like the real – but it still wasn’t quite.’ [Emphasis added.) Well, what on earth would a French chef know about French fries? Zuckerman tells us that the world had to wait for ‘the real thing’ until ‘the early 1850s’ for an American to ‘invent’ French fries, naming George Crum as the ‘inventor’, The Half Moon Hotel at Saratoga Springs as the site.2 Well, Americans have ever been braggarts. But how much thinner than Mrs Randolph’s ‘shavings’ can one get? Or Soyer’s ‘almost shavings’, for that matter? Further, Audot gives a receipt in 1823 for pomme frites that calls for thin raw slices to be friend until they are bien cassante, so crackling crisp as to be brittle. Further, Carême gets very specific, calling for cutting raw potatoes the thickness d’une ligne (equivalent to 0.225 mm, or one-twelfth of an inch) before throwing them into a friture and frying them until they are très-croustillantes [very crisp]. Whether in English or French, how many ways are there of saying thin? Or crisp? No matter how you slice French fries, they are still French, as the eponymous title would suggest. The earliest receipt that can unequivocally be identified as calling for the frying of sliced raw potatoes that I have found is one given in La Cuisiniere Républicaine. Among some thirty-five receipts for pommes de terre there is one for ‘[Pommes de terre] Enfriture’, which involves the classic fritter method, that is, thin slices, dipped in batter and fried in deep fat, an ancient procedure recorded in medieval manuscripts, early making its way to English court cuisine as in this archetypical receipt for ‘Fretoure’ calling for making the batter, then ‘take fayre Applys, & kut hem in man’er of Fretourys,’ dipping the slices of apple in the batter and frying them in ‘layre Oyle.’ In short, a procedure already so established even in early fifteenth-century England that one is to ‘kut hem in man’er of Fretourys,’ that is, raw in slices, and so understood. Note that all the terms come directly from the French: Frire and friture always refer to frying in deep fat. Always. What we now know as French fries may have started out as potato fritters, but it would not have taken long for French cooks to realise that potatoes are starchy enough not to need the coating of batter to provide the attractive characterizing crust of deep fried foods; that may well have occurred long before 1795, given the historical lag between practice and the printed word. I note that La Cuisinière Républicaine is thought to have been written by a woman, not a chef (the cover title, Paix au Chaumieres, salutes women who are out of work – an early feminist cookbook).3 Chefs had other worries in 1795, and many of them had already fled France, among them Louis Eustache Ude and very likely Honore Julien, who was to become chef de cuisine at the President’s House. An aside. A number of works suggest that pommes frites originated as street food sold by vendors on the bridges of vieux Paris, siting pommes de terre Pont-Neuf potatoes cut and fried in the characteristic crispy thin strips to be found in any Paris bistro today, La Cuisine de Madame Saint-Ange (1958, p.865) being perhaps the most emphatic. I have no way of verifying it, but it would not be inconsistent with what we know about the history of the potato in Paris. Since all early chefs’ receipts for pommes frites known to me call for cutting them in thin round slices, I speculate that in this form they were considered to be rather more elegant than in strips. But I suspect that there were a lot more pommes frites in Paris around the turn of the eighteenth century, whatever the shape, whatever the lieu, than has been realized – see, for example, Annette’s receipt from the 1830s entitled ‘French Beef Steak’, effectively ‘Steak frites’ in that it is to be served with potatoes cut ‘lengthways’ – which I take to mean into long strips – before frying, ’turning them all the time’. This, in French home cooking. Below, I give a panoply of receipts for fried potatoes, ranging from 1755 with Menon’s Les Soupees de la Cour to 1824 and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife with her receipt for frying ‘shavings’ of potato in boiling lard ‘till they are crisp’. This last, three decades before the American ‘invention’ of chips in Saratoga Springs in ‘the early 1850s’, as recounted in the fakelore tale by Zuckerman. I even throw in the receipt from A Shilling Cookery for the People (1845) by Alexis Soyer which he so maligned.
Des Cheruis, Salsifix, Pommes de Terre & Taupinambours.
Entremêts. The cheruis [skirrets], cook them in water with a piece of butter kneaded with flour, some salt; it takes only a quarter of an hour to cook them; drain them and dip them in a batter made with wine, & fry them of a beautiful colour; the Salsifis, scrape them, cook them the same way or simply with water; it takes a much longer time; drain them & serve them in a good sauce blanche; the potatoes & the topinambours are cooked the same way; once drained, take off and discard the skin, & put them in a highly seasoned sauce blanche, or a sauce à la moutarde. (Translated from Menon, Les Soupeers de la Cour, 1755 vol. IV, p.150.) Early mentions of pommes de terre are fraught with danger as to identification; as often as not, the writer was referring to topinambours (Helianthus tuberosus), popularly called Jerusalem artichokes in the United States; in really early mentions, the reference could even be to truffles. Les truffes, however, are dealt with elsewhere, and the grouping here removes any element of doubt as to the true identity of pommes de terre (Solanum tuberosum), what Southern cookbooks tended to call Irish potatoes to differentiate them from sweet potatoes. Cheruis [chervis] refers to skirrets (Sium sisarum), and that was a merry chase. I found receipts for cercifis in Dictionnaire Potatif de Cuisine (1772), including one much like the fritter method above, but no information on identity. French dictionaries are remarkably uninformative; Robert helpfully refers the reader to cumin, and Larousse Gastronomique describes it as a plant originating in China, the root of which ‘is of an extremely sweet and aromatic savour, once highly regarded and sought after, but today is hardly known,’ with not a hint of further identification. Nor were recent mammoth American and English reference works any more useful. I had to go all the way back to Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) to find ‘Chervis: m. The root Skirret, or Skirwicke.’ With skirret, I am on familiar ground, as it was enormously popular in Tudor times. Thus armed, I turned to the OED, where I found that skirret is a popular alteration of Old French erchervis, thence to Sturtevant, where I found supporting evidence to the effect that it was much used in French cookery, giving the name as chervy, corresponding more or less to the French pronunciation of chervis. A related strain is popularly called water parsnip. Neither the chervis nor the topinambour is mentioned among the Legumes in the Jefferson document to hand. He did, however, cultivate Jerusalem artichokes (variously calling them topinabours). Salsify was quite another story. Not only did he cultivate it, but it was purchased with some frequency during his years in The President’s House. Receipts also appear in the family manuscripts. As for the cooking of the salsify and potatoes, it is not clear whether or not the immediately preceding instructions concerning frying refer to them as well. Judging by Ude’s pairing of receipts for Salsifis and Fried Salsifis, it is possible they did, but perhaps not. What it does show, is that it was but one step to the following receipt, that of frying the potatoes à cru rather than first boiling them. Pommes de Terre en Friture. Make a batter with potato flour, two eggs mixed with a little water; add a spoonful of oil, a spoonful of eau-de-vie, salt & pepper; beat your batter well so that there are no lumps; peel the Pommes de terre crues [raw potatoes] & cut them into slices, dip them in the batter & fry them of a beautiful colour. (Translated from La Cuisinière Républicaine, 1795-6, pp.22-3.)
These are to be turned when raw, and cut of the same thickness as in No.1 ;* then fry them in clarified butter. If you should have any goose dripping it would do better. When the potatoes are fried of a fine brown colour; and crisp, drain all the grease on a towel, and serve them quite hot on a napkin, or in a deep dish, for this entremets cannot be dished nicely in any other way Do not forget to sprinkle them over with a little pounded salt. * … turn them in the shape of big corks, and cut them into slices as thick as two-penny pieces. (Louis Eustache Ude, The French Cook, , 1828, pp.337, 336.) The editorial asterisks indicate the pertinent instructions from ‘Potatoes a la Maitre d’Hôtel’. I suggest that Ude’s procedure for turning the potatoes before slicing them is what is meant by LeMaire’s instructions, as transmitted by Jefferson, for pommes de terre frites, à crus, en petites tranches, that is, cutting small neat circlets. As to the thickness, Mary Randolph called for ‘shavings’, an instruction which I suggest reflected LeMaire’s practice.
Pommes-de-terre frites. (Entremets.)
Cut raw potatoes into slices; throw them into a nice hot friture [boiling fat]; when they are [shatteringly crisp] – take them out, sprinkle them with fine salt, and serve hot. Translated from L[ouis]-E[ustace) A[udot], La Cuisinière de la Campagne et de la Ville 1823, p. 226.) As discussed before, it could not have taken long for French chefs to realize that the batter method was not necessary for frying slices of raw potato to their desirable characteristic crustiness. (I believe that the above receipt appeared in the first edition of 1818, but have not been able to verify it; in any event, it was decades before the American ‘invention’ of the dish at Saratoga Springs.) For such a receipt to appear in a work directed to housewives, means that it had been going on for some time, perhaps before the time of La Cuisiniere Républicaine, a quarter of a century earlier. As I say over and over again, historically there was a considerable lag between practice and print. Audot gives several variations, one of them lifted all but verbatim from La Cuisinière – except that he simply calls for flour rather than potato flour in the batter. While I cannot approve of ‘borrowing’ receipts, historical ‘publishers’ works’ such as Audot’s La Cuisiniere de la Campagne et de la Ville, are a treasure trove for culinary historians precisely because they are but compilations of receipts that have found their way into culinary practice. Another example is The Cook’s Own Book, Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia, thought to have been compiled by Mrs. N.K.M. Lee. At least she was rather more honest about it than most of her kind.
To Fry Sliced Potatoes
Peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peal a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils and is still, put in the slices of potatoes and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with very little salt sprinkled on them. (Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824, p.118. Emphasis added.) I have included this receipt with others for French fries because I believe that it originally came from LeMaire; pace Zuckerman, it does indeed concern French fries, Pommes frites, call them what you will. I am a little puzzled about the thickness of the slices; Carême calls for the thickness d’une ligne, amounting to one-twelfth of an inch, and I suspect that this was the usual thickness, at least among chefs. She does, however, call for shavings in the next breath, and it would be difficult to get potatoes thinner than that.
Pommes de Terre Frites
Prepare raw yellow potatoes of Holland as in the preceding receipt,* wipe them perfectly dry, have a beautiful friture of fat, or better of oil; plunge the potatoes into the friture when it is three-quarters hot, without taking the pot off the fire; move the potatoes about frequently with a skimmer so that they do not stick to the bottom of the pot; after a few moments they will rise to the surface, but one must not cease moving them, this so as to assure equal colouring; when you see that they are très croustitlantes [crackling crisp], drain them in a strainer and then throw them in a sauteeing pan with two ounces of butter, and salt; serve them en buisson [a bush-like decorative mound], which you top with fried parsley. *Take large potatoes of Holland, cut them en bouchons [cork-shaped] the diameter of a two-franc coin; cut them into slices the thickness d’une ligne, throwing them into water as they are cut. (Translated from M. Antonin Carême, as transmitted by Plumerey, working from the master’s notes, in L’Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siècle, 1844/1847, vol. V pp.507, 506.) Editorial asterisks refer to the pertinent instructions in the preceding receipt. As with all receipts transmitted by Plumerey, I believe that we can with some assurance say that this receipt in fact antedates 1833.
Peel a pound of potatoes, cut them into very thin slices, almost shavings; put some flit into a frying pan; when very hot, but not burning, throw the slices in, not too many at a time, as they will stick together; move them about with a skimmer; to prevent it. When a nice brown colour, take them out, and sprinkle some salt over; serve them up separate, or over broiled meat Two inches of fat ought to be in the pan. (Alexis Soyei; A Shilling Cookery for the People, 1845 and later editions, No 298. Emphasis added.)
1. While the English term frying comes from the French, it is not nearly so specific as frite; indeed, it is necessary to resort to the term deep-fat frying to differentiate it from pan-frying, which more nearly corresponds to French sauter. 2. That is, cooks in France, and even the United States, had been making French fries and thin potato chips for perhaps half a century or so before some hotel keeper had the perspicacity to christen them Saratoga chips. Richard J. Hooker, in Food and Drink in America (1981, pp.118,383), gives the year as 1853, and reports conflicting accounts, one crediting Montgomery Hall, the other Moon’s Lake House. In short, fakelore. 3. By definition, chefs de cuisine are male; the ancient tradition of the guilds in that regard rules to this day in France. Historically, they wrote the cookbooks; they still do, by and large. And it may well be that potatoes played a greater role in popular cookery than in haute cuisine. Even so, LeMaire knew of them, as the Jefferson document demonstrates.