French fries are the Rodney Dangerfields of snacks - they get no respect. But don't tell that to the well-heeled patrons of B. Frites in downtown Manhattan. Hordes of gussied-up theatergoers elbow their way to this Broadway spot to sample fries that even Belgians - who insist they invented the "French" fry - would agree are among the world's best.
First cultivated some 1,800 years ago in South America, the potato, because of its great versatility, quickly became a staple of the Belgian diet when it was introduced there in 1583.
Belgium's fertile flatland made for superb potato growing, and today, the New Jersey-size country produces almost 1 billion tons a year. Each citizen devours about 220 pounds of potatoes annually - twice the amount consumed by the average American.
Despite the "French" prefix, food lore insists that Belgians invented the fry or "frite" (pronounced freet).
In the 19th century, Belgians typically fried the fish they caught in the Meuse River. But - so the story goes - severe ice one winter made fishing impossible, so French-speaking Belgians cut potatoes into the shape of small fish and fried them instead.
A Belgian entrepreneur named - what else? - Frits allegedly opened the first fried-potato stand (friterie) in Brussels, creating a tasty snack and cultural icon in one fell swoop. Today, Belgium is home to more than 7,000 friteries.
So why the French fry and not the Belgian fry? Could it be because we already have Belgian endive and Brussels sprouts? Actually, several explanations have emerged:
1. Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and US ambassador to France, reportedly introduced a dish of "potatoes, fried in the French manner" at a dinner party at his Virginia home, Monticello. His guests loved them.
2. The term "Frenching" also refers cutting potatoes into narrow strips.
3. American soldiers fighting in World War I discovered friteries in Belgium, but since the language used was French, the Americans mistakenly named the treat French fries.
American bumbling went a long way toward creating that other great spud snack, the potato chip. George Crum, chef at Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was tired of receiving complaints that his fries were too thick and not tasty enough.
Fed up, he tried slicing his potatoes ultra-thin, frying them to a crisp, and salting them heavily. The customers were impressed, and Saratoga chips were born.
Before consumers became wedded to Ruffles and Pringles, chips were made slightly chewy. And as Jefferson could tell you, they were real dinner fare, not an afterthought at the summer barbecue. Today, these chewy chips, seasoned with Cajun spices, or cooked in truffle oil, are finding a home in upscale steakhouses as appetizers.
Making great-tasting fries is serious business in Belgium. For those raised on typical fast-food-type fries - smaller, greasier, and cut from Idaho potatoes - they offer a unique experience.
True Belgian fries, says B. Frites chef/owner Skel Islamaj, a native of Belgium, use Bintjes potatoes. "Most of the culinary world of the US is oriented toward the Idaho potato," says Mr. Islamaj. "Everybody thinks that's what to use for fries. We beg to differ."
The yellow creamy flesh of the Bintjes variety has a high-starch, low-moisture, and low-sugar content that enhances the light, crispy golden-potato taste so sought after in fries.
Many authentic Belgian fries are cooked in beef fat, but Islamaj prefers soybean oil. Unlike some chefs, however, he doesn't wash the potato slices before frying. This keeps the starch - and flavor - intact.
So can the average "you want fries with that?" cook reproduce the B. Frites legendary flavor?
Well, not quite. Not unless you have the same $20,000 specially made Rubbens fryer that Islamaj credits with 40 percent of the fries' flavor. Standard rectangle fryers, he says, don't provide the consistent heating temperature that the rounded Rubbens does.
In his pursuit of potato perfection, he has even learned to adjust the oil temperature ever so slightly to account for varying starch content through the seasons.
Why all the fuss? For Islamaj, it's a matter of national pride: "You don't go to get good sushi from a guy in the Bronx; you go to a Japanese guy," he says.
Home cooks with considerably less pride and resources should still be able to capture the Belgian flavor with a decent substitute like the Yukon Gold potato.
It is critical when using the double-fry method to let the potatoes fully "sweat" out the oil between fryings. Rushed batches will be soggy.
How to 'top' the perfect fry? B. Frites customers are confronted with more than a dozen choices, including "my Thai" made from red curry, coconut milk, peanuts, and oil; Andalouse, a traditional Belgian mayonnaise with bell peppers, garlic, and tomatoes; and roasted garlic ketchup.
Traditional belgian fries
1 pound Bintjes or Marrist Piper potatoes (or Yukon Gold)
Salt to taste
Peel and slice potatoes into sticks 1/2-inch wide by 4 inches long. Don't wash off starch.
Heat oil to 265 degrees F. and fry in small batches for 6 to 7 minutes.
After frying, let fries "sweat" on a paper towel for at least a half hour or until dry.
Heat oil to 350 degrees F. and fry again for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown.
Add salt and serve with ketchup or mayonnaise.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor