This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Super Fry: The Fight for the Golden Frite, first released on June 18, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: They are a beautiful golden color.
CYNTHIA GRABER: They are very pretty. They look like what I expect them to look like. They smell delicious.
TWILLEY: Smell amazing.
GRABER: I can’t keep on doing this. I’m eating.
TWILLEY: Mayonnaise first?
GRABER: Oh yeah. That’s a really good French fry.
TWILLEY: Cynthia! Here we are, having fries in Belgium and you’re calling them French fries.
GRABER: I’m sorry it’s a habit!
GRABER: This was a challenge—I kept wanting to call them French fries!
TWILLEY: But we were in Belgium, in Bruges to be precise. And the issue, Cynthia, is that fries are not actually French. Or at least, that’s what the Belgians say. They think fries are Belgian.
GRABER: The French, though, they do also lay claim to fries. And sometimes we Americans like to pretend that we are the center of the fry universe, and a few politicians have even tried to get rid of the word French.
TWILLEY: And back in the home of the English language, we don’t even call them fries. We call them chips. So there.
GRABER: We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this is our last episode of this season. So we decided to give you a treat—an episode all about one of the world’s truly great culinary inventions. The fried potato stick. Whatever you want to call it.
GRABER: We take you right into the heart of the battle that continues to be waged over who owns the fry. Who invented it, who perfected it, who reveres it the most.
TWILLEY: And then we take you behind the scenes into another epic fight: the struggle for the perfect fry. Can food scientists create a fry with the ultimate crispy shell and soft inside that also stays that way all the way to your home?
GRABER: Plus, does mayo really have the edge over ketchup?
TWILLEY: Fighting words. But we’re not afraid to wade in.
TWILLEY: There are two fry museums in the world. They are both in Belgium, which is only the size of Maryland. And one of those fry museums is the size of a small regular museum, like a historical society.
GRABER: And the other museum is the size of a very small apartment. In fact it is actually an Airbnb called Home Frites Home, and it’s also a fries micro-museum.
TWILLEY: So we went to Belgium to visit these fry museums. First we went to Bruges, to the larger one—it’s called the Frietmuseum, and it is in fact the world’s largest collection of fry-related stuff. It is the project of a man called Eddy van Belle. He’s a successful businessman but as a hobby, he likes to collect things. He started young.
EDDY VAN BELLE: On Sunday mornings I would go to flea markets, to antique shops basically in the beginning with my father. He brought me there when I was 12. So when I was 12, I bought my first lamp let’s say. I was, I was buying lots of little stuff, jars, say a gun sometimes, or a sword or things like that like some kids buy.
GRABER: But that lamp really triggered something in Eddy. He bought one small lamp. And then another. And then next thing you know it ballooned into about 5000 lamps.
VAN BELLE: And one day I was asking my wife and and the youngest boy, “What are you going to do with this collection the day I’m not there anymore?” And Kevin said—that’s my son—”Oh Papa don’t worry. We’ll sell it. It will bring a lot of money.” So I said “No Kevin, I’ve been collecting for 40 years in those days already.” This is a very big collection. It’s probably and almost certainly the largest interior lamp collection in the world.
TWILLEY: Eddy didn’t want his precious lamp collection to be sold. He also didn’t want to donate it to another museum because he was afraid they wouldn’t love it the way he does and all those lamps would just end up sitting in storage. So he started his own museum, just for lamps.
GRABER: Then a few years later, Eddy’s other son says, Hey dad, there are 42 chocolate shops in Bruges. But there isn’t any chocolate museum. We should really start museum number two devoted to chocolate. And Eddy’s like, sure, great idea.
TWILLEY: That was in 2004. And then, a couple of years later, Eddy accidentally bought another building. He didn’t really want it but the owners kept calling him and eventually he named a really low price, thinking that would get them off his back… and they said yes.
VAN BELLE: We were brainstorming. And someone says, What are you going to do there? I said, we don’t know, We don’t know. Beer is… but there’s already two beer museums. Chocolate. We already had the chocolate museum. And someone says look in your plate, and there was fries and meat. I say not a meat museum. No, no! he says. Fries! Fries! Belgian fries. So I said okay, that’s maybe a good idea. And so we went, in the evening I went on the Internet looking for a fry museum. Nothing in Belgium, nothing in the world. And that’s when we decided to go for Belgian fries and make a museum out of it.
GRABER: This is the story of the founding of the world’s largest fry museum.
TWILLEY: As it turns out, the world’s smallest fry museum was also founded by accident. Home Frite Home is just down the road in Brussels.
HUGUES HENRI: My name is Hugues Henri. I discovered the fries universe around 20 years ago when I started to publish a website called Frites dot be. And at this time the project was to have a funny informations about Brussels. But as we choose the name fry—frites—a lot of people began to ask me a lot of questions about fries. And then I discover that there, there was a real universe around the fried potato piece. And I began to collect objects, documents, interviews about fries. That’s all that how it began.
GRABER: Two fry museums. Two obsessed Belgians. But why Belgium? Aren’t fries, you know, French? French fries?
TWILLEY: You make it sound so simple Cynthia—like oh, French fries, they must be French. But you know how this stuff goes. These stories are never that straightforward. The true origins of the fry are shrouded in mystery.
GRABER: To start to clear up some of the mystery, first we have to get the potato to Europe from its original home in Peru. The Spaniards were colonizing South America in the 1500s, they encountered the potato—
VAN BELLE: They would bring back those potatoes, not necessarily to eat them. For instance here in Bruges, the first uses of those potatoes was for flowers. And it’s only at a later stage that that people started to really plant them to eat them. Because you know in Europe and in France when the potatoes arrived they were not always understood. Some people think it was part of the devil even. So we had to not to fry the potato at first but to free the potato.
TWILLEY: Of course, long before the potato arrived on the continent, Europeans had discovered the joys of frying things.
HENRI: Yes they were frying, as everywhere in the world. It’s a way of cooking, to fry. So they were frying fishes for instance. Different things.
GRABER: And so when the potato shows up and when people finally realize it’s great to eat and not just to look at, well, it’s just another fun thing to dip into bubbling oil.
HENRI: In Spain one of the first to begin to eat potatoes was St. Thérèse d’Avila. And as they had in Spain a real frying tradition, the best explanation about the origin of the fried potato, could be that at the end of the sixteenth century St. Thérèse d’Avila was the first to fry potatoes.
TWILLEY: Uh what? What does St. Theresa of Avila have to do with potatoes and frying them?
GRABER: And a bigger question for me is, who is St. Teresa of Avila? A quick Google search revealed that she’s the patron saint of headache sufferers? But more importantly, she was a Spanish noblewoman who was a nun in the 1500s.
TWILLEY: And legend has it that she grew potatoes in the grounds of her nunnery in Seville. And, like Hugues says, if you have a potato, why not fry it?
GRABER: But these potatoes that may or may not have been fried in Spain were not french fries. They were probably cooked in olive oil, and they’d have been kind of soft. And they definitely weren’t shaped like a stick.
HENRI: No, of course. It was at this time slices or pieces of potatoes. So it was, it was not the fries as we know it.
TWILLEY: For crispy stick-shaped fries, we have to head north. And this is where the great France vs. Belgium battle begins.
GRABER: Potatoes did likely get to Belgium before they got to France, because though there aren’t many remnants of Spanish life there today, Belgium actually used to be part of what’s called the Spanish Netherlands.
VAN BELLE: That’s why we very early had chocolate here in Flanders and specifically in Bruges which was a harbor. And also in the rest of Belgium we had very early the potatoes. Earlier than in France anyway.
TWILLEY: We know this from a book. It’s an account of travels in Latin America by Jean Baptiste Labat. It was published in 1724. And Eddy showed us a copy.
VAN BELLE: We have a book in the museum that is mentioning… that is very strange, that in France for instance they still are eating buckwheat. Yes. Their food is still buckwheat and marrons glacé… What is it. Chestnuts. Thank you. Wow. And so buckwheat and chestnut. Whereas in Belgium they already were eating potatoes.
GRABER: So potatoes do seem to have gotten to Belgium before they got to France. But the descriptions of fried potatoes? Those show up first in France. In the late 1700s, and specifically on one bridge.
VAN BELLE Yeah well they claim it’s a French fry. And they always talk about a fry shop on the Pont Neuf in Paris.
TWILLEY: Just like in Spain, Eddy says these weren’t potato sticks.
VAN BELLE: We also think, is that maybe, maybe in France they started to cut the potato in slices and fry the slices. That’s the the text that you find, the oldest books that we have mention that. So you take a potato, peel a potato slice, and then you fry the slices.
HENRI: At this time it wasn’t the stick of potato. It was also pieces and slices of uh potato fried. So we had to wait a little bit before the real Belgian fries appeared.
TWILLEY: There is of course, vigorous debate on this matter. We were standing firmly among the ranks of the Belgians at this point, so we had to be careful. But as we looked at engravings of fried potato sellers from the 1800s in Hugues’s collection, we saw things that looked like potato sticks. And even he admitted it was possible that the French might—might—have come up with the stick shape themselves.
HENRI: There was an evolution. First it was mainly slices. Then other kind of pieces and on some of those drawings sometimes it could be sticks. So maybe it’s possible that the first sticks appeared in France.
GRABER: So now we’re starting to draw the battle lines here. Potatoes show up in Belgium before France—point for the Belgians. Fried potatoes show up in France before Belgium—point to the French.
TWILLEY: But the stick shape. This is the tie breaker. And there’s documentary evidence—the engravings of the fry sellers on the Pont Neuf, but also the famous French chef Escoffier—in 1903, he published a recipe for fried potatoes Pont Neuf style, and he clearly describes sticks. So maybe this one goes to the French?
GRABER: Oh, the Belgians are not surrendering that point. Eddy has a story to tell, and it gives the invention of the stick shape to the Belgians more than a century earlier.
VAN BELLE: It’s a not confirmed story and unfortunately the person who wrote it died two years before we opened the Fry Museum which is a real pity.
TWILLEY: I don’t know about you but I believe this story already!
VAN BELLE: He was a journalist. And he wrote an article in a magazine and in that article he mentioned that in his house he had a kind of text document written by one of his ancestors.
GRABER: So this journalist says that the document was a century old. And in the document, somehow it describes that in the late 1600s, people who were living in southern Belgium in a valley by the river Meuse, they regularly caught and fried small river fish.
VAN BELLE: And apparently during a certain number of years it was very very cold and the rivers were, say, frozen and they couldn’t fish. So what did they do? They apparently took large potatoes, cut the potatoes in the shape of small fish and started to fry that. And that’s apparently how today is explained, how in Belgium we started to have Belgian fries.
TWILLEY: Uh huh.
VAN BELLE: But there is nobody who saw it. Nobody saw the document. It disappeared. We don’t know. Maybe nobody got really interested in it. And it’s too late now.
GRABER: The guy’s dead, there’s no document, I’m with you, Nicky, this smells fishy.
TWILLEY: Oh god Cynthia. Please.
GRABER: There’s a slightly better documented story from the 1800s on the Belgian fairgrounds. That’s around the same time as those engravings of fry sellers in Paris. And this one has to do with a guy, a real one, named Mr. Frederic Krieger.
TWILLEY: Who later changed his name to Mr Fritz. For reasons that are apparently not fry related.
HENRI: Mr. Krieger had a real success in the Belgian fairground and he was looking for a new way to improve fried potatoes and an easy way to produce them and to sell more of them. So he imagines to cut them in sticks.
TWILLEY: The theory, if you can call it that, is that a thin stick-shaped potato cooks more quickly than the potato slices, so, if you’re running a busy fried potato stall at the fair, sticks give you a competitive advantage. Ta da, the invention of the fry as we know it, the fried potato stick.
GRABER: Fritz slash Krieger is German, and so Eddy isn’t too keen to give him credit for inventing fries. And it’s not clear that he invented a new method, or instead that he was just a really great salesman. But he did seem to have played a pretty major role in popularizing fries in Belgium. Suddenly more and more fry stands popped up around the country.
TWILLEY: And these fair ground stands—these are another reason why the Belgians claim to have invented the true fry—because the stick shape is not everything. There’s also how you cook it.
HENRI: The twice frying is really really important to have good fries. To have this crispy outside and the softer inside.
GRABER: A twice-cooked fry, that’s what really made early Belgian fries a thing of beauty. But that process might not have been invented to create the perfect fry, it was probably just a practicality.
HENRI: Because when the “frituristes” were doing fries sometimes when there were not too much people, when it was not overcrowded in front of the fries stands, they used to fry them a first time at a lower temperature so they were ready to fry them definitely at a higher temperature when the people was coming.
TWILLEY: This double frying—which today is the standard way of making a fry—the Belgians own that one. Or so they claim, and we haven’t found anything to prove them wrong.
VAN BELLE: Initially in France and in the other countries outside Belgium people would not bake twice. They would only bake once.
GRABER: Maybe the Belgians weren’t the absolute first to cut potatoes into stick shapes, and maybe they didn’t invent double-fried potatoes.
TWILLEY: Although maybe they were and maybe they did—it’s almost impossible to tell from the little evidence that remains.
GRABER: But the point is, and we are going to hear more about Belgian fries, they were the first to really popularize these stick-shaped double-fried potato pieces. So then my next question is—if most of the points here seem to be going to Belgium, why did I grow up calling them French fries?
TWILLEY: The story of how French fries came to be called French turns out to be nearly as complicated as the story of who invented them. There’s a bunch of different theories.
KANTHA SHELKE: Apparently Thomas Jefferson also served potatoes fried in the French manner at a White House dinner somewhere around in eighteen hundreds. And that is how French fries came to have their name.
GRABER: Kantha Shelke is a food scientist we speak to frequently on Gastropod, she’s also the principal at Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm.
TWILLEY: So Kantha told us one of the stories that people tell to explain how French fries got their name. But if you look at the recipe Jefferson wrote down, he was serving round slices of potatoes fried in the French way—like the vendors on the Pont Neuf. Throughout the 1800s, Americans ate sliced round potatoes fried in the French way.
GRABER: It’s even in a story by that master of the last minute twist, the American author O’Henry. In 1894 a French detective in one of his stories says to an American who was visiting France: “Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes.” But these potatoes, they’re not French fries.
VAN BELLE: You make a big error. You call them french fries and that’s not the right way to do it. You should call them Belgian fries.
TWILLEY: Right. The Belgians do not endorse the French fried potato-Jefferson origin story. Eddy and Hugues told us a different story.
VAN BELLE: Well during the First World War when we had luckily the help of the American soldiers to come and help us in difficult circumstances, the soldiers even when they were Flemish were receiving their orders in French.
GRABER: About 60% of the population of Belgium speak Flemish primarily, and about 40% speak French as their first language.
VAN BELLE: So the people leading the army was more French speaking than say Flemish speaking. My father in fact, my grandfather sorry, was in the trenches with a dictionary because he was Flemish, not speaking French, receiving orders in French and sometimes having to translate that. And some Belgian French speaking commanders invite American commanders and they have a meal together: Fries and meat. And the Americans apparently—that’s what is told—hear them speak French and they thought they were French people. So French fries. And in fact it was Flemish or Belgian people speaking French and they should have called them Belgian fries.
GRABER: So far, it does seem like Belgium is winning this argument. But there’s one other potential etymology of French fries, and it’s the culinary meaning of the word French.
HENRI: Because as you know to French in American argot means to cut in sticks.
GRABER: I actually never heard that before—when I hear “to french” I think to french kiss.
TWILLEY: But if you’re Martha Stewart, rather than Cynthia Graber, “to french” does mean to cut veggies in thin strips. Like to julienne them.
GRABER: Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten says the term french fries appeared in print first in 1918.
TWILLEY: That date—maybe that ties the term to Eddy’s story about the war. But also maybe not.
GRABER: Whatever, I am never going to be able to call it anything but a french fry. The French have won that battle, sorry, Eddy. But the Belgians certainly win when it comes to fry culture.
HENRI: Yes. Because what is important is that the potato fried sticks, it’s more than eating. There is a real culture around it. What we call the culture frietkot. And the culture frietkot in the summer of 2017 has been recognized here in Belgium as immaterial patrimoine by all the authorities here in Belgium.
GRABER: In English, that’s what’s known as “intangible cultural heritage.”
TWILLEY: And frietkot is Flemish for frystand. Basically anywhere—a shack, a van, a wagon, a hole in the wall—anywhere someone set up and sold paper cones filled with fries is a frietkot.
HENRI: You had frietkots everywhere, in every town, every village. You found frietkot in every square near the train station. Every places where you had people. And even the churches. I have a collection of old pictures and postcards where you see churches. And often there is a little frietkot on the side of the church. It was the Sunday fries! May the fries be with you. It was like this on Sunday when you went to church.
TWILLEY: Beats a communion wafer, for sure.
GRABER: Going to the frietkot was a regular tradition for a lot of people—Eddy went every week.
VAN BELLE: I remember when I was a kid, which is not 150 years although it’s a few years, usually what we would do on a Sunday, we’d leave early in the morning, come back in the evening and spend the day somewhere. On the lake or on a river, picnic and things like that. And where we would come back we would always have fries with mayonnaise. Always. So my father would stop at the shop on the road and buy the fries and we would have them in the car. And that was really a tradition.
TWILLEY: People also used to run out to the frietkot to get fries to serve at home.
HENRI: There was a tradition in the village mostly, it was to go to the fry stands with a big plate. And so you had chicken at home or anything else or moules.
TWILLEY: Which are mussels.
HENRI: And you gave your big plate to the frituriste who put real good Belgian fries in it and then you were running to go back home to eat them with your chicken or moules or anything.
GRABER: Today, you’ll find frietkot in Belgian stories, in movies, even in lots of songs.
GRABER: Just in case all this fry culture doesn’t give the ultimate win to the Belgians, Eddy told us another point in their favor.
VAN BELLE: In Belgium we have maybe two records. I think we have the highest production per capita of potatoes of the world. Not the highest production of potatoes, but if you work it out per capita it’s the highest. But what we yes have as highest is the transformation of potatoes into purée, fries and things like that and chips. That is in Belgium the industry is producing the highest amount of the world.
TWILLEY: So there we go. Belgium is clearly the center of the fry universe. I mean, there’s a frietkot on every corner, right?
HENRI: Unfortunately not. Because mainly during the 80s a lot of those fry stands disappeared.
GRABER: In part, people just stopped eating as many fries as they used to.
VAN BELLE: But also because some people started to say we don’t like the fry shop there in the middle of the market or next to the train station, or on that parking along the road. It’s not nice, it’s not well-built. It’s… Of course these people have not a lot of money. They would build most of the time their own shop with the pieces of wood and things like that. And so they were not looking very nice but they were very typical.
TWILLEY: Both Hugues and Eddy are sad about this. They think something important is lost when a frietkot shuts up shop.
VAN BELLE: I think the big advantage of having lots of fry shops was that they were a place for social contact but also a place where people could observe. And they were seeing a lot. Shops that were, say, near a train station and they would be open until eleven or twelve, they would see much more than people living in their closed house. So they they saw lots of things happening and they could then also intervene or inform maybe the police sometimes, specifically when they were on marketplaces. And that has disappeared now.
GRABER: For Hugues, what’s been lost is less the neighborhood watch, but rather it’s something that’s central to his identity as a Belgian.
HENIR: It was also the reflection of the way we like to be in Belgium. Open to the people. And if you are a factory worker or a CEO, that is not a problem. You like the same thing. The fries.
TWILLEY: It’s a lovely sentiment but let’s not get too emotional here. There are still a lot of fries and frietkot in Belgium. In fact, for every Belgian there are 11 times as many fry stands as we have McDonalds per person here in America. Belgians eat 165 pounds of fries PER PERSON each year—that’s at least three times more than Americans.
GRABER: And Hugues sees this as a great reason for all of us to visit his country.
HENRI: What I like with the fries, it’s that you may export good beer, you may export good chocolate. But you cannot export fries because the best place to eat fries is in Belgium at the fry stand. So this is really important. It’s also a kind of invitation to people to come to Belgium.
TWILLEY: Fries, togetherness, probably world peace, or at least a vacation in Belgium. It’s all happiness and joy. Unless you take my last fry.
GRABER: Obviously if you haven’t figured this out yet, basically everyone thinks that fries are totally ridiculously delicious. And if you don’t agree with that statement, well, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
SHELKE: We love our fries. Some people like it crispy. Some people like it soft and lightly crispy on the outside. Some people like it absolutely burnt. And this has been brought to you by food science and technology.
GRABER: Yes, it’s true. We can thank science for the fact that you can get good fries almost anywhere. Maybe not the world’s best, but decent ones.
SHELKE: So about 50, 60 years ago it would be not unusual to walk into a restaurant and eat a french fry that was soggy, doughy, mealy, not so crisp, limp or very hard. You don’t get that today. Practically every restaurant has French fries that are crisp and deliciously and sensually soft inside.
TWILLEY: So how have scientists like Kantha won the war against sogginess, limpness, and mealiness to bring us the perfect fry? This is another battle—honestly, it’s a battle I care even more about than the Franco-Belgian skirmish over the fry’s origin. This one has real world consequences.
DEBORAH DIHEL: French fries are a fairly simple product. So the majority of the product is the potato that you start with.
GRABER: Deborah Dihel is the vice president of innovation at Lamb Weston. It’s one of the top companies in America that provides frozen french fries to restaurants and stores.
TWILLEY: In Belgium, unsurprisingly, they have firm opinions about the correct potato for perfect fries.
VAN BELLE: What we think is the best because of consistency and taste is what it’s called Bintje.
DIHEL: Oh that’s a delicious potato. That’s got like a yellow flesh and it’s a little bit more buttery and creamy than the russet Burbank. But it doesn’t grow very well in U.S. soils. So again it depends on the local tastes too, because they prefer that shorter yellow fleshed potato whereas in the U.S. we prefer a longer and white fleshed potato.
TWILLEY: Kantha told us there’s also a new potato on the block in America: the Annabelle. Which also makes great french fries. And which is the daughter of a potato that is named after me. The Nicola.
GRABER: Yes, that potato was bred as a special tribute to you, of course. But so that’s step one, the perfect type of potato. Next up, find the perfect individual potatoes.
SHELKE: So the potato must not be too wet or too dry which means it should be between 12 to 14 percent dry starch matter.
TWILLEY: There’s more water involved in cutting potatoes. A water cannon to be precise. The guy who founded Lamb Weston, Deb’s company, he invented this water cannon cutting method. He used a fire hose to shoot the potatoes at a grid of sharpened steel.
DIHEL: Think about a tennis racket. And if a tennis racket were knives. Think about blasting a potato through a tennis racket and how that’s how you cut the strips of French fries. So that was invented by the founder of our company back in the 60s. And it’s still the way French fries are cut today.
TWILLEY: And the most popular shape for those perfect cuts?
DIHEL: Oh I think it’s the Quarter inch shoestring. The classic french fry.
TWILLEY: The Belgians, as we’ve hinted, like their fries a little chubbier and shorter. And the Brits like them full on fat. We like a thick chip.
GRABER: But no matter what type of fry you might want, Lamb Weston’s got it.
DIHEL: You know you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s over 2,000 types of french fries that we can make. And we have made over the years. So you’ve got like a straight cut and a crinkle cut and a wedge and a Criss cut and a curly fry.
TWILLEY: But not all fry shapes are successful. Deb told us about some of the fries that failed.
DIHEL: Oh we would have maybe like a shape that looks like a lightning bolt. That was kind of a fun one. We did a shape that had different… like a puzzle piece so you could play with your food and you can build puzzles with the different shapes of french fries. We thought that was really fun. But that didn’t really take off either.
GRABER: Eddy told us there were some shapes invented in Belgium that didn’t really go anywhere either. One was a round fry. Not a big hit.
VAN BELLE: This one was a better invention. It was a fry with six sides. But apparently nobody wanted to change the fries from square to six angles and so he lost a lot of money. We tried to obtain some of his equipment but he doesn’t want to talk about the fry anymore.
TWILLEY: Oof. The fry shape graveyard is a haunted place.
GRABER: But for the shapes that did live to see another day, the next step is a quick blanch. And then the important part—frying.
VAN BELLE: You fry the best chips or fries in tallow.
GRABER: Tallow is beef fat.
VAN BELLE: Taste wise and also crispiness. The crispiness is better with tallow than with any other type of oil or fat. And ideally for the taste, and again you will not like it maybe, it’s two third tallow, one third horse fat. But we don’t do that because we have too many visitors who would not like to have fries fried in horse fat.
TWILLEY: Yeah, that would not go down so well in the US of A. Here we tend to fry our potatoes in vegetable oils with no flavor.
GRABER: But you probably remember that the critical Belgian innovation is the double fry.
TWILLEY: This technique might have been invented by accident, but it is genius. The first frying, that’s for the inside. You need to heat up all the water that’s in the potato flesh to boiling point, so it tries to boil off.
GRABER: And it cooks the inside of the fry. At this point, the potato is cooked, the outside is just a light golden color. And then you cool it down. And the second fry, that’s all about getting the absolutely perfect exterior.
SHELKE: To get that beautiful amber gold color, it’s best to fry it twice. It stays crispy, doesn’t bend, doesn’t become soggy or limp, and the potatoes are ready to be consumed, salted or not.
TWILLEY: Salted for me please. But actually these days, there’s often a long gap between the first frying and second frying. For most fries in America, the first frying takes place at the factory, and then the fry is frozen and shipped and the second frying happens at the restaurant.
GRABER: The food companies that make those frozen potatoes, like Lamb Weston, they’ve figured out the perfect temperatures and timing for both the frying and the freezing, and the perfect coating, all to make sure the fry doesn’t get mushy before it reaches its second dip in oil.
TWILLEY: So in theory, all fries should be utterly perfect. But you and I and everyone—we all have experienced the sadness that is a less-than-perfect fry. Even restaurants that buy the same basic frozen fries from Lamb Weston—the fries that they end up serving can be quite different.
SHELKE: So when I worked for a company that shall go unknown that also owned a very large fast food restaurant whose french fries were not as popular as the competing fast food restaurant that everybody said had the best french fries. You can put in whatever names you want to. I cannot tell you that.
GRABER: We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that Kantha was working for Wendy’s and that they were investigating McDonalds. But that’s just a guess. Don’t sue us.
SHELKE: But as part of R&D I actually used to drive a van that was fitted in the back with a couple of food scientists and all the equipment that we could have and we would drive up to the competing fast food restaurant and order five or six large fries and then drive out into the parking lot and test them to see if our french fries even compared with them.
TWILLEY: Kantha would be sitting in the back of the van with an instrument called a texture analyzer, which does exactly what it sounds like.
SHELKE: I can even today look at the curve of, a texture analyzer curve of a french fry and tell you exactly which fry it is and which potato it is. We could never get it to be as crispy and as fluffy as our competition.
GRABER: Some secrets are still secret.
TWILLEY: It’s true. Even though the basic formula for a perfect fry was figured out decades ago, fry scientists like Kantha and like Deb still have a job.
DIHEL: One of the biggest challenges we have lately is the growth of delivery. And having you know using Uber to order your french fries and your burger creates a more challenging environment for fries.
GRABER: All a restaurant had to worry about before was whether or not your fries would still be crispy when they get to your table. Now they have to worry about whether the fries stay crispy for the time it takes to load up the car and drive to your apartment.
TWILLEY: This anxiety—it all comes down to water. Everything in fry science eventually comes back to water.
GRABER: Even after you fry a fry, there’s still water left in the creamy potato-y inside. And hopefully your fries are hot, so that water continues to escape as steam.
DIHEL: And when you make fresh French fries and you put them in a package and you close like a clam shell, a plastic clam shell, you create like a little sauna in there.
TWILLEY: Which you know is some delightful self-care and me-time for the fries, no doubt, but it also means they get soggy really fast, which is not a good outcome for the fry eater.
GRABER: Deb and her colleagues are now battling steam. They’ve designed a whole new package just for delivery, so that the fries aren’t sweating in the sauna.
DIHEL: So you have like a chimney effect where the moisture will exit and not make the fries soggy but you still maintain enough heat because you don’t want the fries to be cold either.
TWILLEY: The packaging is one piece. But Deb and her team also have a super top secret technique they’ve figured out to keep the moisture locked up in the fry. They experimented with a bunch of different starch molecules to design a special coating for the fries.
DIHEL: So you’re really sort of making a glass. So we’re—we play with our formulation and the amount of polymers—we call them polymers, but they’re just different blends of starches that melt together when you fry them and then they form that really thin glass.
GRABER: It’s not really glass, not like your window pane, but it is a thin strong barrier, like a super thin layer of ice that first forms on water.
DIHEL: And the glassier it is the better it resists the moisture migration.
GRABER: But the glass can’t be too thick or the fry is tough—Deb and her colleagues have solved this problem, and they now have a fry that can stay crispy for 30 minutes. Pretty amazing.
DIHEL: It took us over two years to figure this out. We even have somebody on our team that became an Uber Eats driver just to understand that whole experience and the challenges that Uber drivers have when they have to deliver french fries.
TWILLEY: So thanks to science and Belgians you have your perfect crispy fry. And then, horror, you dunk it in wet sauce! Madness. But it’s true. Fries are great on their own. But really they’re a vehicle for condiments.
GRABER: At the fry museum in Bruge, the cafe serves only fries. But when it comes to condiments, they have far more options.
TWILLEY: How many sauces do you have?
FRY SHOP MAN: Well we have plenty of sauces. We have cocktail sauce, curry sauce, the sweet sour, garlic, pepper, mustard—plain mustard, curry ketchup, ketchup, Andaluz. Samurai is really spicy, with chile and sambal in it. Then you have the tartar, it’s a mayonnaise herbs.
TWILLEY: I know, I know. You’re thinking what? People dip their fries in sweet and sour sauce? Are they barbarians? But this is an area where reasonable people do differ. In England, where I grew up, we like to put malt vinegar on our chips. And it tastes amazing.
GRABER: I do love the taste of vinegar on chips, but I feel like it makes the fries soggy pretty quickly.
TWILLEY: I think we Brits just have a higher tolerance for squidge in our fries, hence the fact we also prefer them fatter and more potatoey.
GRABER: Here in America, our fry religion insists on ketchup. I like regular ketchup fine, but I’m particularly obsessed with the ketchup at Goldie’s in Philadelphia, it’s kind of spicy and I think is made with a mango pickle. Go there, get the fries with shwarma spice, and get as much of their ketchup as you can.
TWILLEY: I’m with you Cynthia, but I promise, there are some of you listening who are screaming in horror right now. Fry dipping habits are deeply tribal. Just think of Pulp Fiction.
VINCENT: You know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
VINCENT: I seen ’em do it. They BLEEP drown ’em in it that BEEP.
GRABER: That’s how the Belgians eat their fries, and as we’ve now established, they invented the twice-fried potato stick.
TWILLEY: And dipping fries in mayonnaise is in fact also delicious. The Belgians—they win.
GRABER: Nicky, I have to say, I’ve worked so hard this episode to call this particular food just a “fry,” out of respect for our Belgian friends and their fry expertise. After this episode, though, I’ll probably return to my ingrained habit and call them french fries.
TWILLEY: And that, Cynthia, is because you are a cheese eating surrender monkey. I believe that’s the technical term.
TINA FEY: In protest to France’s opposition to a U.S. war on Iraq, the U.S. congress’s cafeteria has changed French Fries and French Toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. Afterwards, the congressmen were so pleased with themselves, they all started Freedom Kissing each other. In a related story, in France, American Cheese is now referred to as Idiot Cheese.
GRABER: Ah, the freedom fry era of 2003. Good times.
JON STEWART CLIP
STEWART: We wanted to talk to you about this freedom fries thing. Is that true? Did they take off French Fries from the menu in the congressional cafeteria?
GEPHARDT: I mean, you know, we got a lot of problems, right? And the Republican leadership brings up Freedom Fries.
STEWART: Oh this was a Republican leadership issue?
GEPHARDT: Yeah, this was the Republican leader…This is what they do. (Laughs, cheers.)
TWILLEY: That was Jon Stewart talking to Dick Gephardt who was the Democrat minority leader of the house at the time. And yes, this name change really happened, because Republicans decided it was an effective way to protest France’s opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
GRABER: Leaving politics and the war aside, this particular effort didn’t take.
STEPHEN COLBERT CLIP
COLBERT: And you know folks, speaking of the french. Normally when I am this depressed, I binge on some good old American Comfort food. Some hot dog pie, maybe a baseball sandwich! And always on the side, a heaping order of freedom fries. You can feel the liberty coat your arteries. But not anymore, I guess! Because a few weeks ago, the cafeteria at the US Capital went back to calling them “french fries.”
TWILLEY: But they’re Belgian!
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Eddy van Belle at the Friet Museum in Bruges and Hugues Henri at Home Friet Home in Brussels, we have photos and links on our website gastropod dot com.
GRABER: Thanks also to Deb Dihel of Lamb Weston and Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue. Also, links on our website, gastropod.com
TWILLEY: Our fabulous intern Emily Pontecorvo helped us find all the fun songs and TV clips this episode. And we apologize in advance for all the fries you now need to consume. Enjoy!
GRABER: We are taking a season break now, but we promise, we’ll be back really soon. If you sign up for our regular emails, which you can find at the top of the page at gastropod.com, then you’ll get a preview of what you’ll be hearing in the next few months. And if you sign up to be one of our special supporters, well, you’ll get emails with additional fry deliciousness and personalized nutrition science and more at gastropod.com/support