We’ve been enjoying variations of the humble potato for more than 10,000 years. While the original potato traces back to Peru, you can find different preparations of this starchy vegetable all over the world, in the form of the everyday French fry. Whether you call them French fries, chips, french-fried potatoes, Belgian potato fries, or pommes frites, this addictive food has quirks and secrets you may not know about.
1. A frozen river gave us French fries
After European settlers in the Americas began sending potatoes to Europe, the versatile, calorie-rich, long-storing spud soon gained loyal fans throughout the continent. But it took a frozen river in Belgium to unlock the joy of fried potatoes.
During winters on the Belgium’s The Muese River, local villagers would catch fish, slice them thin, and fry them for a warm snack. One winter (probably in the 1600s or 1700s) the Muese froze, so the fishless villagers fried up thin-sliced potatoes instead.
2. French fries are actually Belgian… or maybe Spanish… or maybe French
You likely noted that river was in Belgium, not France. So why do we call them “French fries?”
The answer: World War I.
American soldiers serving in Europe broke bread with their French-speaking Belgian colleagues. The Americans soldiers returned home with tales of “French fries.”
Yet no food origin story is ever undisputed. Seville, Spain, is another likely birthplace of the famed fry: A nun grew potatoes in her convent’s garden, then fried them in olive oil to feed the needy.
Or maybe French fries are French after all.
Other accounts claim Parisian street vendors in the 1780s couldn’t sell enough of the thin potato fritters.
Maybe all that matters is fried potatoes caught on.
3. It takes water to fry perfectly
A water rinse is essential to achieve crispy fries.
The rinse washes off extra starch that can gum up the exterior, leaving behind pristine potatoes that are ready to become crunchable.
After drying, the potatoes are cooked, more commonly today in vegetable oil, but traditionally in beef tallow, in two stages. A brief rest lets water and starch gel on the surface. With the second fry, the potato gains the perfect crunch outside and tenderness inside.
4. The French fry has its own museum
Perhaps Belgians didn’t like the French getting all the credit. In 2014 Belgium petitioned UNESCO to establish the French fry as an official Belgian cultural icon. In 2017, UNESCO did just that.
Bruges, Belgium, is also home to the world’s first—and only—“potato fries” museum. Since 2008, the two-story Frietmuseum has told visitors about the history of the potato, how the fry was invented, and the secrets behind making perfect fries. Of course, while visiting you can also sample fries in all their diverse glory.
5. Anything goes when it comes to condiments
Americans love ketchup. It’s vinegar for the Brits, mustard for the French, mayo for the Belgians, chili sauce for Malaysians, and cheese curds and beef gravy for the Canadians.
Stateside, awesome eateries around the country have their own special takes on fry toppings. The San Francisco Bay Area’s Lord George specializes in fries with garlic aioli. Nearby, Jack’s Prime Burgers and Shakes loves their Irish nacho fries, topped with melted cheddar, crispy bacon bits, and green onions with tabasco mayo on the side.
On the East Coast, Washington D.C.’s Haute Dogs & Fries goes classic savory with chili and cheese. And to brave those Chicago winters, Kuma’s Corner tops hearty fries with barbecued pork.
6. Thomas Jefferson brought fried potatoes to America
From 1784 to 1789, future president Thomas Jefferson served as America’s Minister to France. While there, he got his first taste of fried potatoes.
Jefferson wrote about the “pommes de terre frites en petites tranches,” or “potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small slices.” Then, at an 1802 White House dinner, President Jefferson included “potatoes served in the French manner.” These were likely discs—not the long, skinny fries we know and love today.
Luckily, the name was eventually shortened: In the 1960s “French fries” more commonly became known as “fries.”
7. There is no one shape
The “baton,” “stick,” or “standard cut” fry from fast food restaurants is the iconic shape most well-known by Americans. But fries come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from curly to waffle.
8. French fries have their own day
July 13 is National French Fry Day (hashtag #FrenchFriesDay). Be sure to check the news that day—you never know who will offer free fries!
From the French fry’s humble beginnings in a Belgian village to plates and bellies all over the world, people across the globe know that no matter what day it is, any day is a good day for French fries.