The Origin of Chips

In 2013 I had a short holiday in Northern France. On the way back home  to the UK we stopped at the town of Wissant for lunch at a friterie.

Friteries are a feature of Northern France and are a simple place to buy French fries accompanied by a selection of sauces and accompaniments. The thin strips of potato are fried twice, first to drive out the moisture and second to achieve the essential golden crispness of the French Fry and the friterie we chose was full to overflowing with customers lining up for their favourite combination.

I was interested to discover that there is controversy about the humble French Fry, frite or chip and there are conflicting claims to how it came to enter the culinary traditions of so many countries.

It is served everywhere in northern France but it is the Belgians who claim that they invented it and there is a rather unlikely tale attached to the claim.

The story goes that the local people rather liked eating small deep fried fishes but in the Winter when the rivers were frozen and fishing became hazardous they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer instead.

Seems unlikely to me.  I can’t believe that this was going to fool anyone but then again take a look in a supermarket freezer section today and potatoes are cut into all sorts of different shapes to amuse the kids.

In Spain they say that this is nonsense and the potato wasn’t even grown in (what is now) Belgium at that time and some claim that dish may have been invented there, which might make sense because this was the first European country in which the potato appeared via the New World colonies.

It goes on to back up this claim with the assertion that ‘patatas fritas’ were an original accompaniment to fish dishes in Galicia from which it spread to the rest of the country and then to the Spanish Netherlands, part of which only became, what we now call, Belgium more than a century later.

France actually took some time to accept the potato, I expect they thought that it was a bit common and it wasn’t until a famine of 1795 that they began to eat them with any sort of enthusiasm.

They proved so popular that after that potatoes were being grown on a very large scale in France, including at the royal gardens at the Tuileries Palace and within that short time, the French either came up with the concept or alternatively simply learned to make fries. Once discovered they became extremely popular in revolutionary France, particularly in Paris, where they were sold by push-cart vendors on the streets and called ‘frites’.

Belgium however still stubbornly hangs on to its claim and dismisses the assertion of the French themselves by arguing that the description ‘French Fries’ originated due to a simple  linguistic misunderstanding.  In old English ‘to French’ meant ‘cut into sticks’ and US soldiers in the Second-World-War called them French Fries on account of the fact that the official language of Belgium at the time was French.

While researching this I half expected to find a German claim with the fried potato strips no doubt invented by someone called Fritz. As it turns out the Germans make no such claim but there is a story that potatoes were first introduced to Germany by Frederick the Great. King of Prussia from 1740 to 1772, he is still referred to as “Alte Fritz” (Old Fritz) to this day.

Maybe however as we line up to claim the chip we are missing something here. The potato was first cultivated by the Incas in Peru so maybe they have a claim and there is in fact a restaurant in Lima called “The Original Fries“.

I am not sure about that sickly looking accompaniment however…

Of course we don’t care what the Belgians, the French or the Spanish think because we are completely certain that they are an English invention and that we make a better job of cooking them than anyone else anyway.

Traditionally, chips in the United Kingdom are cut much thicker and since the surface-to-volume ratio is lower, they have a lower fat content. According to legend, the first chips fried in the UK were on the site of Oldham’s Tommyfield Market in 1860.

46 responses to “The Origin of Chips

  1. Wikipedia says the “average” American eats 30 pounds of french fries per year.

    Based on our habits and that of the people I know, there must be a number of people out there eating 160 pounds of just french fries each year.

    I wonder if they meant potatoes in general? Because, I mean, throw in mashed potatoes, and I can believe it.

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    • Before the potato blight crisis and the famine of 1845-52 the average Irish man ate 14 pounds of potatoes every day. Imagine that!

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    • I can’t imagine eating 14 pounds of anything every day, let alone potatoes.

      When I read those kinds of numbers, I always think they’re making a decimal error . . . and I don’t mean 140 pounds.

      Let’s see . . . 14 pounds per day is 98 pounds of potatoes per person per week, or 5,096 pounds per person per year.

      Now . . . Potatoes: Grow 1 plant to yield 5 to 10 potatoes. Yield 10 to 20 pounds per 10-foot row. Space seed potatoes 10 to 14 inches apart in trenches 24 to 34 inches apart. Potatoes grow to maturity in 70-120 days depending on the variety (modern day). That translates to something like 10 tons (20,000 pounds) per acre per year.

      In 1845, roughly Ireland’s population was 8 million . . . so you would need 8,000,000 x 5,100 = 40,800,000,000 pounds of potatoes per year. At 20,000 pounds per acre, you would need 2,040,000 acres, or roughly 3,200 square miles.

      hmm . . . I suppose it’s possible since that’s only 1/10th the area of Ireland. Except back then there was only 0.5 acres of arable land per person, or 4,000,000 acres . . . or 6,200 square miles.

      OK, OK, I guess they could grow that much, but I still don’t think an average person could eat an average of 14 pounds of anything in a day.

      Wait . . . is that yearly yield actually for one year or for one growing season? . . . now I have to start all over.

      OR . . . I could try to eat 14 pounds of potatoes in a day and see if it’s possible . . . but not today.

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      • Good numbers. 14 pounds was the figure for a working man doing manual labour. In 19th century Ireland people lived almost entirely on potatoes, the country produced little else and was the reason for the massive impact of the blight and the famine.

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  2. French fries are good, but the Belgian fries are better and the patatas bravas of Spain are the best!!

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  3. Yes to patatas bravas! And thick-cut English chips. Not keen on thin-cut chips at all. Great history lesson.

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  4. When I had my house in Sigoules the village was visited weekly for a while by The Dordogne Chippy – an English couple who delivered these delights on wheels – triple fried.

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  5. Well, I can honestly say I have never thought about chips in terms of surface-to-volume ratios, but, as my recent post about Belgium explains, I wouldn’t believe a thing they say.

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  6. In my beloved town of Padstow, you have a choice: fabulous proper fish n chips from Chip Ahoy (yeah really) in town, or you can go to Rick Stein’s chippy and pay 4 times as much for something not half as good! And for the record, if I was going to “do” 14 of anything in a day, I think it would come in pints rather than pounds…

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  7. Visiting Bruges years ago in the middle of winter, feet freezing to the ground…rescued by the chip van – wonderful chips with, of course, mayonnaise!
    I stayed in Wissant once…again, back in the dark ages. There was a choice of two rooms, each covered floor to and including ceiling with shag pile carpet, one a lurid orange, the other a soft grey. The floor, of course, was bare.

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  8. I prefer thicker chips to the thinner french fries. I love the current trend of chunky triple cooked chips. I can’t wait for restaurants to re-open, fish and chip shop chips don’t quite make the grade. Though no one can beat a fish shop cooked battered cod, especially in Whitby!

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  9. By far, the most detailed discussion of French Fries/chips I have ever read, Andrew. Kudos for your research. And who wouldn’t want to claim them! I doctor traditional fries up with catchup: Peggy uses Ranch Dressing. But then, she uses Ranch on everything, including Pizza. I’ve switched out to eating sweet potato fries in restaurants, lately. A whole new taste. I’ve also started experimenting with cooking French fires in an air fryer our kids gave us for Xmas. My next version will be slightly more chunky and seasoned with garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Sounds yummy. We’ll see. 🙂 –Curt

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  10. Now I’m craving chips. I remember being disgusted at the idea of accompanying them with mayonnaise when I first encountered it, but I got to like it quite quickly.

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  11. Yummy Fritjes with mayonnaise! Great memories!

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  12. English style thick fries are best, but I like them skin on as well.

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  13. I didn’t realise how modern chips were, not even 200 years old

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  16. An interesting post and some of the comments made me lol. I much prefer proper English chips to ‘French ‘ fries. In South Africa though if you ask for chips you’ll get a packet of crisps, chips as we know them are just fries 🙂

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