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In Belgium there are three stories about the etymology of French fries. And I'd like to know once and for all which one is correct.

The most popular story is probably the following, because it allows us to tell people French fries are actually not French at all, but Belgian instead:

During WWI the allied soldiers tasted French fries in Wallonia, because the people there speak French, they thought that they were in France instead, and thus called them French fries.

The second and third story are somewhat related and sound more logical to me. It either refers to:

1) Frenching, which is a method of cutting foods

or

2) French frying, which is a method of frying foods

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  • Or maybe someone named "French" invented them?
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 22:37
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    Or perhaps Thomas Jefferson popularised the term. Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 22:41
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    As Edwin pointed out, the term "French fries" in American usage is much older than WWI. Here's a decently-researched article on the debate between French and Belgian origins: todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/09/…
    – MT_Head
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 22:43
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    @ermanen - True, but at least we can eliminate the WWI origin story; the term was pre-existing. Here's a reference from 1901, for example: books.google.com/…
    – MT_Head
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 22:49
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    ... Yes, even the Phoenicians had warchips. Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 22:50

2 Answers 2

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Straight Dope has a detailed answer to the question "How did French fries get their name, and where did they originate?" which includes its origin in Paris, France and how it originated from the name of the country, France, but not from the cooking method to french as the food and the name of the food were known long before the usage of the verb. Here is the relevant excerpt from straightdope.com:

And so we arrive at your question. For also in the 1840s, pomme frites ("fried potatoes") first appeared in Paris. Sadly, we don't know the name of the ingenious chef who first sliced the potato into long slender pieces and fried them. But they were immediately popular, and were sold on the streets of Paris by push-cart vendors.

Frites spread to America where they were called French fried potatoes. You asked how they got their name--pretty obvious, I'd say: they came from France, and they were fried potatoes, so they were called "French fried potatoes." The name was shortened to "french fries" in the 1930s.

By the way, the verb "to french" in cooking has come to mean to cut in long, slender strips, and some people insist that "french fries" come from that term. However, the French fried potato was known since the middle 1800s, while the OED cites the first use of the verb "to french" around 1895, so it appears pretty convincing that "french fried potatoes" came before the verb "frenching." The origin of the name is thus the country of origin French and not the cooking term french.

Pierre Leclercq, a Belgian food historian, provides an extensive historical background of french fries in his website histoiredelafrite.com and traces back the first mention of fries (in French pomme de terre frite) to 1775, from a collection of court cases from Paris:

French (original):
La première mention de l'expression "pomme de terre frite" dans un texte français date de 1775, dans le cadre d'une affaire judiciaire à Perrecy en Saône-et-Loire. Nicolas-Toussaint des Essarts, Causes célèbres, curieuses et intéressantes, de toutes les cours souveraines du royaume, avec les jugemens qui les ont décidées, t. 6, Paris, 1775, p. 156-160.

English (translation):
The first mention of the expression "pomme de terre frite" in a French text dates from 1775, in the context of a legal case in Perrecy in Saône-et-Loire. Nicolas-Toussaint des Essarts, famous, curious and interesting causes, of all the sovereign courts of the kingdom, with the judgments which decided them , t. 6, Paris, 1775, p. 156-160.


The book Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (by John Reader) explains how french fries was intoduced to America, through Thomas Jefferson who was a commissioner in Paris and tasted french fries at a dinner there; and brought the recipe back to America.

Now that the potato was served at court, and had achieved respectability among the aristocracy, Parmentier began promoting its virtues with the panache of a modern-day public relations consultant. He hosted dinners at which his guests ate nothing but potatoes — from soup to liqueur. Benjamin Franklin, then America’s Commissioner in France, is said to have attended one of these and perhaps Thomas Jefferson did too, after taking over the Paris post from Franklin. Jefferson certainly seems to have been interested in potatoes and Parmentier. A copy of Parmentier’s prize-winning essay ended up in the Jefferson library and a White House dinner which included a dish Jefferson had particularly enjoyed in Paris is said to have been the occasion at which America was introduced to french fries.

Note: French fries were first introduced to America in 1802 per the archived source "Ebeling, Charles (31 October 2005). French fried: From Monticello to the Moon, A Social, Political and Cultural Appreciation of the French Fry. The Chicago Literary Club.":

...former ambassador to France, Jefferson, had indeed brought the french fry to America in 1802. In fact the recipe for french fries was noted in a manuscript in Jefferson’s own hand, and almost certainly came from his French chef, Honore Julien.

As there is still an ongoing dispute about the origin of french fries whether it is from France or Belgium; the book French Food: On the Table On the Page and in French Culture (by Lawrence R. Schehr, Allen S. Weiss) rejects the French origin and the idea of the introduction of french fries to America through Jefferson as it was probably another potato dish, and provides the Belgian origin as below:

One story has it that French fries were served at the White House in Washington around the turn of the nineteenth century at the request of Thomas Jefferson who would have brought the idea back from France. This, I think, is hopelessly off-track in the sense that these “French-style” potatoes would have been nothing more than browned potatoes (pommes rissolées) or potatoes fried in a pan with abundant fat. It is notorious in Belgium that until the 1960s, the vast majority of French people had still not acquired the technique of double-frying and the majority of restaurateurs continued to prepare their fries in a pan as still seen in some countries (which is not to say that they would not be good, if greasy). The method imported by Jefferson cannot possibly constitute proof that fries are French in origin since the proper method was still unknown in France a century and a half later.

It is more likely that the First World War was the event that most helped to propagate the Belgian fries beyond the country’s borders with the movement of French troops within Belgium and the immigration into France of a Belgian population. More recently, it is the unprecedented globalization of French fries promoted by fast-food restaurants, which have learned good fry-making techniques—even if they do use frozen fries— that has made them one of the most-consumed food in the world.

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    I spend a lot of time in France and they are adamant that they don't have anything to do with French fries... Some relatives there are very into cuisine (and they would gladly take French ownership of anything) and I have heard that this is a made up tale. Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 23:12
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    If the French really wanted to disown fries, rather than pommes frites, they would call them something anglais, like la maladie anglaise (syphilis) or la capote anglaise (condom). Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 4:35
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    For what it's worth, the French term for cutting things into thin strips is «julienne». Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 8:53
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    @RyeBread that 21st-century French people believe that French fries did not originate in 18th-century France does not prove that French fries did not originate in 18th-century France (much less that French fries were not introduced to the English-speaking world by way of 19th-century France).
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 10:41
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French fries get their name from French frying, a method of frying food.

The OED has French fries as originally and chiefly North American, dating to 1902 but dating to at least 1886, as found by Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations:

1886 Springfield (MA) Republican 12 Oct. 1 (GenealogyBank) REMEMBER that the place to buy Saratoga Potatoes is at No 4 Dwight-street (near State), also French fries Wednesdays and Saturdays.

An earlier name is French fried potatoes, dating back to 1856 in Eliza Warren's Cookery for Maids of All Work:

French Fried Potatoes -- Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, and a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown colour; drain dry from fat, and serve hot.

This method of French frying goes back further, as found in The Cook and Housewife's Manual from 1828:

The French fry sliced potatoes in goose dripping which has a very high relish and before serving drain them on a towel before the fire.

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    None of these citations is evidence that "French frying" ever existed as a method of cooking food independently of French fries or "French fried potatoes," which could more easily be parsed as (French[-style]) (fried potatoes). This reading is in fact supported by the last citation, which does not use "French frying" to name the technique it describes but rather indicates that the technique is the one used by French people to fry potatoes.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 10:47

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