Maryann Tebben :: “French” Fries: France’s Culinary Identity from Brillat-Savarin to Barthes
The humble potato transformed into culinary gold: why is the frite iconic to French food and the French identity? Brillat-Savarin identified the process for making them, Barthes glorified them, Bush vilified them, and Belgium wants them back. In French food literature, pommes frites are proudly claimed as emblematic of France: writers from Duhamel to Zola have extolled the virtues of the fried potato and Barthes’ Mythologies made them a symbolic representation of the French identity—one half of the French national dish, steak-frites. But French fries have become, of late, menacingly foreign in political rhetoric. This paper will explore the history of “French” fries in French literature and explore the problematic identification of this wonderfully simple and yet deceptively complex foodstuff with France’s culinary and cultural identity.
Roland Barthes says he wrote the Mythologies (1957) by reflecting on “quelques mythes de la vie quotidienne française”(9). If wine is, for the French, a “boisson totem” (69) for its mythological powers of conversion and its ubiquitous place in French social contexts, pommes frites rests alongside the bifteck (itself evoking the same sanguine mythology as wine and sharing its place in nationalism) “la frite est nostalgique et patriote”(74). For Barthes, the frite is the culinary symbol of “francité”(74). He uses the example of one General Castries who asked for fries as his first meal following the Indochinese armistice. Barthes calls the choice “un episode rituel d’approbation de l’ethnie française retrouvée”(74). But this strict association between pommes frites and French national identity is quite modern, and perhaps more common to Americans (witness the recent dustup over “freedom fries” in the Congress) than to the French.
Culinary skill is certainly a mark of Frenchness for Brillat-Savarin in his phenomenology of French food of the late 18th and early 19th century, Phenomenologie du gout (1826). He speaks reverently, for example, of the gastronomic talents of French émigrés in the late 18th century. In a quaint admiration of cultural exportation of the alimentary kind (that will later be the source of much consternation for the French in the age of McDonaldization), Brillat-Savarin points to the success of “oeufs brouillés au fromage” brought to Boston by a young French chef, formerly chef to the archbishop of Bordeaux; of the fortune achieved by Captain Collet in New York by making ice cream and sorbet; and in London, of d’Albignac a Frenchman made famous for his talent for making salad. French national identity was associated by the English with this gastronomic talent: d’Albignac was told, “Monsieur le Français, on dit que votre nation excelle dans l’art de faire la salade”(344) and he became known as a “fashionable salad-maker”(345).
Although Brillat-Savarin speaks of the noble profession of “fryer”, neither the potato nor the pomme frite was common to the culinary lexicon of his age. Brillat-Savarin’s “Théorie de la friture”, citing an otherwise unnamed “professeur,” outlines the science proper to frying foods, but also gives attention to the pleasure that fried foods bring, noting that they are pleasing to look at, keep their “primitive” flavor, and can be eaten with the hands, “ce qui plait toujours aux dames”(127). The French fascination with appearance is evoked here, as is intimation that foods are best in their “pure” or “natural” form. However, Brillat-Savarin only discusses fried fish, and not potatoes. The examples given for “frit, frite” in the 5th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1798) testify to the pre-19th century lack of association between frying and potatoes, so natural in current parlance: “Poisson frit. Artichauts frits. Carpe frite”.
History of the Potato in France:
The potato was not widely adopted as part of the French culinary repertoire until the early 19th century, but Henri Gault and Christian Millau in their “Guide gourmand” reveal that potatoes were known in France in the 16th century, called variously “truffole”, “triffole”, “treuffe” or “cartoufle” (Castelot 542). The potato did not have immediate success; at the table of Louis XIII “elle déplaît”(ibid). The Besançon parliament outlawed its cultivation, it was disdained as poor man’s food, and was eaten principally by pourceaux. But the renown of the pomme de terre owes much to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, apothecary and pharmacist of the Invalides under Louis XVI, who promoted its use in the 18th century. He famously called the potato the “nouveau pain du pauvre”, intending for it to be used as the basis for bread, and convinced the king of its merits. On October 21, 1787, Parmentier’s “menu tout en pommes de terre” that included fried potatoes as well as coffee made from potatoes was served at the Invalides (Castelot 517). However, Karen Hess cites a recipe for 'Des Ceruis, Salsifix, Pommes de terre & Taupinambours' in Menon's Les soupers de la Cour (1755) as evidence that potatoes had been served at court prior to Parmentier’s intervention.
The French, like many Europeans, resisted the introduction of the potato to their cooking and it became popular only after the First Empire. There is no mention of “pommes frites” or even “pomme de terre” in the first five Dictionnaires de l’Académie française published between 1694 and 1798, nor are entries found for alternate terms for potato, including “parmentier”, “truffe” (meaning “potato”), or “cartoufle”. The entry for “pomme de terre” in the 6th edition (1832-1835) notes that it is a plant with roots “garnies d’une multitude de tubercules bons à manger” at last confirming the potato’s edibility. Entries for “pommes de terre frites” and “pommes frites” are found in the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1932-1935).
Potato consumption increased dramatically in the 19th century, from 45 pounds per person annually between 1803 and 1812 to 350 pounds per person per year between 1905 and 1913 (Teuteberg 444). Jean-François Millet’s painting “Potato Planters” was completed in 1861, confirming that potato cultivation had begun in France in the late 19th century.
Rise of the Fry:
The origin of “French” fries depends, it seems, on whether form or process is privileged. Hess argues that thin sliced potatoes (not necessarily cut into strips) also count as French fries, and she has uncovered a recipe for “Pommes de terre en friture” calling for sliced, fried potatoes in La Cuisinière Républicaine of 1795-6. Fried potatoes cut into strips were the first hot dish sold by street vendors in Paris in the 19th century under several forms, including matchstick (allumettes), “les Pont-Neuf” (thicker cut), and pommes soufflés, mythically attributed to the age of Louis-Philippe when it is said that in 1837, for the celebration of the opening of the new rail line Paris-Saint Germain, a cook refried some frites he had prepared earlier and invented pommes soufflés (Castelot 544). The term “pommes frites” is in use in French as of the 1840s (supported by Carême’s recipe for “pommes de terre frites” in L'Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siècle of 1844/1847), while “frite” as a noun derived from the verb “frire” dates to 1858 (TLFi Dictionary). Incidentally, Belgians claim to have eaten frites since 1680; a professional association of fryers (the UNAFRI) has existed since 1984.
The pure form of the frite, as a French product, is necessarily tied to Paris and to the golden age of urban development, when Paris was constructing the French identity for 19th-century Europe. The designation in French that perhaps comes closest to “French fries” is “les Pont Neuf” for all of its symbolic weight. The Pont-Neuf bridge is the oldest bridge in Paris (the first stone was laid in 1528) but is perpetually new by virtue of its name. It serves as one of the core symbols of Paris, of the monarch, of the French. Escoffier describes the “pommes de terre Pont-Neuf” as “le type fondamental des pommes de terre frites” (763). The pomme frite was rising in popularity and in symbolism in the 19th century, just as the Pont Neuf itself inspired numerous artists and writers. In culinary history, the French fry probably belongs to the Belgians, but mythologically frites are unquestionably, unalterably Parisian.
Edmond and Jules Goncourt testify to the place of the frite vendors in Paris in their Journal of 1868-1887. In September 1870 the brothers Goncourt describe the Parisian upper crust mixing with the hoi polloi during the Prussian siege of Paris; they note the irony of wealthy Parisians who live in the capital of fresh food and expert butchers carrying “le boiled mutton” and “le boiled beef” home from the épicerie (II.615), and observe workers and soldiers on a bridge mixing with women “of a certain elegance” who bravely dine on pommes de terre frites in a makeshift restaurant under a tent (II.618). Of this Parisian tableau under impossibly blue skies, the Goncourt declaim that “jamais beau temps ne fut aussi beau”(ibid).
Indeed, the austere days of the 19th century seem to have been the pinnacle of French fry representation, if not glorification. In his Correspondance of 1845 Flaubert compares the bourgeois practice of eating frites daily to the common “nourriture littéraire” of newspapers, history and philosophy, while he, like the gourmets who prefer rarer spices and finer sauces, prefers Ronsard, Rabelais, and Horace, but “peu et rarement”(116). Clearly, the daily pleasure of French fries is a simple one, at home among the people. Goncourt documents an exchange overheard in March 1881 concerning a Mardi gras menu that would include only soup and frites, and the wistful response that in previous years “il y avait bien plus” for celebratory dinners (III.103).
In L’Assommoir (1877), Emile Zola’s ode to the simple life of the urban poor, he describes a typical Parisian street scene, complete with a fruit vendor selling French fries and mussels, from whom “un défilé continu d’ouvrières” purchase cones of fries and cups of mussels in broth (II.406). By comparison, in his Le Ventre de Paris (1873) we find la Sarriette in a charcuterie buying bardes to make alouettes and a pound of lard to make frites. She notes, genially, “moi, j’adore les pommes de terre frites, je fais un déjeuner avec deux sous de pommes de terre frites et une botte de radis”(670). Another luncheon, “un régal exquis” is described later in the book, consisting of pears, nuts, cheese, shrimp, frites and radishes, the French fries having been bought on credit from one of the street merchants (783). In 19th-century French literature, French fries exemplify both the honest food of the poor and the elegance sought after by the middle class.
This dual association of French fries with both the earthy lower classes and the social elite continues in the literature of the 20th century, with Marcel Proust in Sodome et Gomorrhe (1922) declaring, “C'est ce que m'a expliqué le doyen de Doville, homme chauve, éloquent, chimérique et gourmet, qui vit dans l'obédience de Brillat-Savarin, et m'a exposé avec des termes un tantinet sibyllins d'incertaines pédagogies, tout en me faisant manger d'admirables pommes de terre frites”(937) and Georges Duhamel in Biographie de mes fantômes (1944) describing the gastronomic wonders of the Rue Mouffetard in Paris, in a post-war haze of appreciation for the finer, simpler pleasures of French food. The poor student of the reminiscence sets off in search of “deux sous de petits poissons, deux sous de pommes de terre frites et deux sous de pain” and finds glorious displays of meats, cheeses, fruits, and pastries: “Ces richesses sont destinées à l’humble peuple de Paris qui sait ce que c’est qu’un honnête manger et qui s’en donne, tranquillement, à mandibules que veux-tu.” But the student settles on the aforesaid frites, said to be “les meilleurs du monde”, perhaps rendered even more precious following the rationing of potatoes during the war. The frites emerge from fryers whose smoke floats above the shoppers’ heads like a “sacrifice ininterrompu”.
Duhamel makes similar references to the pleasures of frites in Confession de Minuit (1920) (in which the narrator prefers fried potatoes to fried fish), Le Désert de Bièvres (1937), and Le Combat contre les ombres (1939), making him perhaps the principle apologist of the frite in French literature. At home with rich and poor, the frite remains in its 20th century renderings unquestionably Parisian. In Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), the narrator shares a taste for French fries with his friend, and declares “C’est parisien le goût des frites”(490). Barthes associates frites inextricable with bifteck and for him, steak “participe à tous les rythmes, au confortable repas bourgeois et au casse-croûte bohème du célibataire”(74). Clearly, the frite shares this cross-class cultural heritage. Both Goncourt and Zola wanted fiction to be read as truth; each one strove to represent what life was like for forgotten majority of urban poor—Zola for one envisioned a “novel that does not lie”. Celine also showcases bitterly real description. It is no coincidence that the frite appears in this sort of literature, confirming its place as an unpretentious, popular (in both senses of the word) dish.
The transformation of the frite from Parisian street food to American cultural icon began with Thomas Jefferson, a friend and admirer of the French. Jefferson is widely credited with bringing the frite to America in the 18th century, following his travels in France. Hess agrees, documenting their appearance on a menu at Monticello, most likely shepherded in by Etienne LeMaire, Jefferson’s French maître d’hotel. Hess believes that Le Maire is the source of the recipe “To fry Sliced Potatoes” in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824) that was reprinted in The Cook's Own Book (Boston, 1832, p.150), as “Potatoes fried in Slices or Ribbons”. The term “French fries” does not seem to have been in wide use until the 1930s, although some American dictionaries cite its use as early as 1915. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the verb “to french”—meaning to trim meat neatly away from the bone, as with lamb chops—dates to 1895 and that the first documented reference to “French fried potatoes” is in O. Henry’s Rolling Stones of 1894: “Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes.”
But the amiable culinary relationship that led to the naming of frites as French fries in English degraded in the 20th century, on both sides. With the birth and growth of McDonald’s restaurants, the fast food phenomenon overtook America (rendering French fries ubiquitous here), and quickly spread to Europe, fostering accusations of cultural imperialism and hatching the Slow Food movement in Italy. McDonald’s entered France in the late 1970s in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Paris. The early McDonald’s restaurants were subsequently cut loose by McDonald’s corporation amidst accusations of questionable health code standards, and were bought by Quick (Fischler 541). The Americans, fraught with obesity and perhaps jealous of the French dietary paradox that allows the French to consume butter and cheese with few ill effects, find the French curious at best, menacing at worst. Food issues merged with politics in February 2003.
Hot potato: French fries in politics
On February 20, 2003, Neal Rowland, owner of Cubbie’s Diner in Beaufort, North Carolina, declared that his restaurant would no longer serve French fries but “freedom fries” in retaliation for the French refusal to sanction the U.S. war on Iraq. The U.S. Congress followed suit, mandating on March 12 that the cafeterias in the House of Representatives would serve “freedom toast” and “freedom fries” in lieu of the offending “French”-monikered items. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) called the change “a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.” The French embassy responded, first by pointing out that French fries are actually Belgian, and then declaring that “We are at a very serious moment dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes.”(Nathalie Loisau, embassy spokeswoman) If the frite is metonymic for Paris in French literature, the French fry is metonymic for Jacques Chirac’s politics for Americans and neither association makes sense to the other.
In a commentary aired on NPR’s “Fresh Air” on April 23, 2003, linguist Geoff Nunberg characterized the squabble in terms of cultural identity: “This isn’t so much about the French as about frenchness, particularly the insidious frenchness that works its way into our language and our culture and saps our sense of national purpose. This has less to do with them than with us.” Nunberg is, of course, poking fun at the perceived seriousness of the French threat, but his words nevertheless ring true. The attack on “French” fries has little to do with the French people because “French” fries are an American conceit. On the whole, potatoes have relatively little import for the French people. Even Barthes devotes only a paragraph to frites and gives more weight to the bifteck in the holy duo. This is not to say that the French are indifferent to the pomme frite—on the contrary, Escoffier lists no fewer than eleven types of pommes de terre frites in the newest edition. But the French make frites for the simple pleasure of eating them. If their national identity is tied up in this food, it is because they appreciate food finely rendered, not the individual dish. Like Proust’s Madeleine, it is the history bound up in the pomme frite—the multifaceted, royalist and populist context--that counts for the French, certainly not the term accorded to it by Americans more than a century later.
In an episode of the public television cooking series hosted by Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, a collaboration between the American Francophile who represents French cooking in America and the Frenchman who worked at Howard Johnson’s and insists that he is from Connecticut, Pépin demonstrates labor-intensive pommes soufflés as a special hors d’oeuvre to be served with champagne on an elegant occasion, and accompanies tournedos of beef, presented in a shiny copper pan, with a mound of matchstick pommes frites. The pommes soufflés require two fryings at different temperatures and have a high failure rate (that is, it takes many potato slices to achieve a single serving of proper pommes soufflés). The blond allumettes are a visual and tactile counterpoint to the ruddy, glistening beef in the bistro pan, a combination that utterly exemplifies the portrait Barthes paints in Mythologies. Pépin understands and reproduces the proper place of pommes frites in the French culinary tradition, as far from McDonald’s (and the House of Representatives’ cafeteria, for that matter) as one can get. The frite here is appreciated in the context of culinary attention and accomplishment; as a dish deserving of the significant time it takes to prepare it properly but not a star on its own; as a part of the whole, and perhaps an entity that can only be truly understood by the French (or the French-at-heart).
It seems that the pomme frite has of late come into its own in French cuisine, evolving from disdained tuber to food of the people to special occasion food—the “truffe” from whence it came. Writers who extol the virtues of the humble frite, raised up as pinnacle of French identity for good and ill, do so because it and they are French. The potato was always seen as food for the poor, but the French dedication to creating glorious dishes out of the simplest of ingredients helped to elevate it. The pomme soufflé, for example, may be seen as the champagne of French fries. The French fondness for simple things becomes emblematic of the French identity: recall Brillat-Savarin’s admiration for the “primitive” in fried foods. But in France, the frite crosses class lines; in America, despite the origins of fast food in the self-service restaurants geared toward a white-collar clientele in the earlier 20th century (Fischler 528), the French fry is a province solely of the lower classes. Alain Ducasse may have made a hamburger out of foie gras, but no one is proposing to serve French fries (the American kind) in a four-star restaurant. Similarly, the frite can be a part of French high culture, but one is hard-pressed to imagine a similar role in literature for the American French fry. At base, the difference between the two culinary icons lies is cultural: the French know what “French” fries are and what they are for—they don’t need Americans to tell them.
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