Brow Beat

French Fries Are Overrated

Crispy-looking french fries on a white plate set against a blue linen tablecloth.
James Ransom

There are certain categories of opinion you keep to yourself. A friend reconciles with an ex whom you know is no good. Or you can’t stomach an episode of the television series (about tempestuous families and their imaginary kingdoms and dragons) that everyone seems to adore.

It’s not just that the opinion is unpopular—which it might be. Or that you’re avoiding denouncing something innocent for the sake of controversy—which, considering the bigger picture these days, is pretty harmless anyway. It’s that you’d rather not destroy the ground you stand on to say something in the first place—so you keep it to yourself.

At the risk of exposing myself as an insentient person who writes about food, here’s an opinion: I don’t like French fries.

I can’t say it boils down to their health profile, either. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “weapon[s] of dietary destruction,” but I think we can all agree: starch dressed with fat, salt, and dipping sauce might not win dinner of the year.

I imagine my feelings toward French fries approximate the way cat people see dogs—they don’t dislike them, per se. They might even reluctantly give them a scratch behind the ears, the way I poach a skinny fry from my husband’s plate of steak frites. But it’s just not their thing.

My opinion is unusual, I know. Most people have uncomplicated, warm feelings toward French fries, which is why they’ve been a vegetable staple for centuries.

To dig deeper into the history of les frites, I consulted my French food bible: François-Régis Gaudry’s On Va Deguster La France, a book with the thoroughness of an encyclopedia and the voice of your food-enthusiast best friend (or rather, friends; the book’s contributors include dozens of chefs, artisans, journalists, sommeliers and others). It’s the equivalent of wearing a chef’s toque with Crocs—professional but also fun. Weighing in at nearly seven pounds, I perused it several times in-store before committing to lugging it home. But I assure you, Francophile readers, it’s worth it.

According to OVDLF, the first known mention of fries was in 1760, when an abbot at a monastery in Burgundy tried to poison a friar by sprinkling arsenic over—you guessed it—“fried potatoes.” (Here is at least one situation, maybe the only, where my unsavory opinion would be my saving grace!) The first recipe committed to paper appeared in Paris a few years later.

Though they may have been invented in France, fries were perfected by the Belgians, who improved their texture and taste by cutting them into batons and developing what’s now widely accepted as the essential technique: double-frying, first in beef fat and then in vegetable oil. The result is a fried potato that’s “less greasy than you’d think. Its surface, a deep gold, glistens; its crust crackles as you take a bite, and the savory interior is always succulent and creamy.”

If that description doesn’t make your pulse quicken, what will?

My research continued. I wanted to see whether the real thing might inspire in me a new appreciation for deep-fried potatoes, so I visited De Clercq, which, says a comprehensive guide to French frites restaurants, is the only place in Paris that prepares authentic, Belgian fries.

My husband Guillaume and I split a large order, which came in a paper cone and was massive even by American standards. They were, as far as I could tell, very good fries: thin but not spindly, with a golden brown, crispy exterior giving way to a soft, bordering on creamy, interior. We ordered them with two sauces: mayonnaise and “Samurai,” which approximated a spicy version of Thousand Island dressing.

One fry was good. Two was fine. By the third, my mouth was restless.

I told Guillaume they weren’t salty enough, and to add salt now would be like salting already-cooked eggs—it might cling to the surface but it could never save the bland inside. I told him they were only palatable with plenty of sauce and, therefore, could not be considered delicious on their own.

“I think this article is bad for you,” Guillaume said.

“For my career as a food writer?” I asked, concerned.

“No,” he told me. “You’re losing your mind.”

I laughed and dipped another fry into the mayonnaise.

Golden brown french fries in pink paper held over a wooden floor with a tapestry rug.
Caitlin Raux Gunther

Maybe my issue lies in the monotony of eating a plate of fries. I once read an interview with the chef of a very esteemed Northern California restaurant. Each dish, he explained, is just a few bites. That way, the mouth stays entertained, continually titillated by new flavors and textures. I found myself nodding as I read the interview and silently promising to visit his restaurant someday—perhaps at the very grown-up bachelorette party I’d undoubtedly have before marrying my then nonexistent fiancé.

Yes, I decided, that would be unforgettable.

When the time came for my actual wedding, I didn’t make it to California, but I did go to a club in New York City’s Times Square district. Geared toward bachelorettes, the place smelled like cleaning fluid and Long Island iced teas. Instead of amuse bouches, we entertained our mouths with overpriced, bad champagne. And believe you me: You never forget your first time in a room full of hysterical brides, plus a firefighter, a policeman, a soldier, and a cowboy.

In France, just as in the United States, people eat fries with greasy fast foods like cheeseburgers and kebabs. (Once you get your clothes wet, you may as well jump in the pool, right?) But they serve them as counterparts to fine proteins in sit-down establishments, too—for example, alongside beautiful rib-eye steaks and heaps of steaming mussels cooked in white wine. They are but a starchy tool for sopping up the rich, flavorful juices.

Maybe it’s a matter of context and fries should play no more than supporting role, serving as a textural and gustatory foil.

In his memoir about life in Paris in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway writes about lunch with a poet friend at “the best and the most expensive [restaurant] in the Boulevard St. Michel quarter.” The meal begins with a couple dozen flat oysters and ends with steaks and Bearnaise sauce, a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape (“not a luncheon wine,” writes Hemingway), and, of course, French-fried potatoes.

On the topic of potatoes in Love in a Dish … And Other Culinary Delights, M.F.K. Fisher writes, “If, French fried, they make a grilled sirloin of beef taste richer …”

Maybe I’m overthinking the whole matter. But then again, I like overthinking it, even if loved ones express concern that I’m losing my mind sometimes. To imagine that it all began with a plot that reads like a cheap murder mystery novel—a cleric trying to off another cleric at a monastery in the 1700s—just tickles me.

Recently, I buttered a baguette with good Breton butter flecked with sea salt. I buy it by the block at my supermarket (for just two to three euros), and spread it generously like cheese. As I enjoyed my snack, I told my sister Mary Alice that I regretted all the years I didn’t eat bread and butter—there was a less-happy swath in my twenties when I tried following a low-carb diet and shunned the bread bowl.

“Next for you: French fries,” she texted back.

I wasn’t so sure. Fries might never do it for me. But I’m open to persuasion.

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