Where do French fries come from?

(And why do you suppose it took 4,000 years to figure out how good they are?)

By 200 BC, potatoes had been farmed in Peru for at least 2,000 years. But the starchy tuber (a member of the Solanum family, which includes tomatoes and deadly nightshade) didn't come to the attention of the West for another 1,700 years. In 1524, Spanish invaders landed in South America and found all kinds of new things to eat, including tomatoes, peanuts, cacao beans, hot peppers, and more. A journal entry by an anonymous member of a Spanish expedition in 1536 described potatoes being grown in the Andean village of Sorocota. You might not recognize those "original" potatoes today. They were dark and small - almost as small as unshelled peanuts. They looked like dried mushrooms. Still, they were abundant and nutritious. The Spanish were impressed. Potatoes were perfect for feeding the slaves in their silver mines. They were good for ships' crews, too. And so the potato sailed to Europe.

'Do you want Belgian fries with that?" That's what you might be hearing at fast-food restaurants today if it hadn't been for World War I. The Belgians claim to have invented "French" fries, though no one knows for sure. The dish was first prepared as early as the 1700s and was simply called fried potatoes. Thomas Jefferson sampled them in Paris and brought the recipe home. At a White House dinner in 1802, the menu included "potatoes served in the French manner." But that's not how they got their name.

Their commercial success began in 1864, when Joseph Malines of London put "fish and chips" (French fries) on the menu. His success inspired others across Europe. But they weren't French fries until 1918 or so. American soldiers stationed in France gobbled up fried potatoes. They dubbed them "French fries" and liked them so much they wanted to have them at home, too. Americans still love French fries. Last year alone, more than 4.5 billion pounds of them were sold in the United States.

A Native-American chef named George Crum gets the credit for inventing potato chips. He did it by accident in 1853, thanks to a cranky customer. Railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt came to the Moon Lake House Hotel in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and ordered fried potatoes. But he was finicky. He wanted them thin, the way the French made them. He kept sending them back to Mr. Crum, complaining that they were too thick. Finally, Crum had had enough. He sliced the potatoes paper-thin, fried them to a crisp in oil, then doused them with salt. Vanderbilt thought they were great! "Saratoga Crisps" became a popular item on the hotel's menu.

Commercial sales of potato chips had to await a method to keep the chips crisp. A Mrs. Scudder came up with a waxed-paper potato-chip bag in 1926.

Even before the world knew about tomatoes, there was ketchup. The word "ketchup" comes from the Siamese word kechiap, a tangy sauce made of pickled fish. It was first prepared in the 1600s and spread through the region. In the 1700s, British sailors took it from Singapore to England. They spelled it "ketchup," and tried to duplicate it. When they couldn't, they substituted other ingredients, including ground mushrooms, walnuts, and cucumbers. The earliest recipe for "tomato catsup" didn't appear until 1792, and in 1841 Charles Dickens wrote about "lamb chops breaded with ketchup" in "Barnaby Rudge." In 1876, German-American chef and businessman Henry Heinz made the first mass-produced and bottled tomato ketchup.

Archaeologists date the use of salt as far back as 6,500 BC, to people living in modern-day Austria. They found rock salt in the mines of Hallstein and Hallstatt near Salzburg. (Salzburg means "City of Salt.") Salt was precious. It was not only used for seasoning, but also for preserving food. For centuries, salt was traded, ounce for ounce, with gold. When Alexander the Great went to India during his world conquests around 328 BC, he found five types of salt: sea salt, rock salt, red salt, black salt, and earth salt. Ancient Romans built roads to the Adriatic Sea to mine salt. Roman soldiers received special allowances, called salarium ("salt money"). And that's where our word "salary" comes from.

Tater Tots were the product of the Griggs brothers, Nephi and Golden. They started the Idaho Frozen Foods Co. in 1951 in Ontario, Ore., on the border with Idaho. One day Nephi Grigg (everyone called him Neef) came up with a new idea for preparing potatoes. He chopped them up, added flour, seasonings, and something to bind the mixture together. He shaped it into long sticks, cut the sticks into bite-size pieces, and fried them. He called them Tater Tots. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified Nephi Grigg's nickname.]

His brother, Golden, was the salesman. From that humble beginning, almost 75 million pounds of Tater Tots are sold every year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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