A Brief History of Fries as the Ultimate Side

“Would you like fries with that?”

In the United States, this has become a common punchline to express our love for the quintessential side dish.

When dining out and ordering a sandwich, whether from a Michelin star establishment, a fast food chain or a humble mom-and-pop lunch counter, the side of fries has become ubiquitous. But how did this (admittedly pedestrian) preparation of the modest potato come to such prominence? And are some of us missing out by limiting our French fry consumption to burgers?

The History of the French Fry


potatoesWhile the origin of the French fry isn’t quite clear, credit is often attributed either to France or Belgium. After being introduced to Europe by the Spanish, the potato gradually spread throughout the continent. The problem? Potatoes didn’t grow well everywhere and had an off-putting bitter flavor. After several decades of tweaking and cultivation, however, the potato began to catch on.

It is believed that Belgians were the first to begin the process of frying strips of potatoes, at some time between the late 17th and early 18th century. Legend has it that the poor villagers of Meuse subsisted on a diet of fish caught in the local river, which they would then fry before eating. When the river would freeze over each winter and fishing was not to be had, the potato became a stand in for the fish and the earliest iteration of French fries was born.

This explanation is not without its detractors, however, as both France and Spain claim the French fry and it’s subsequent rise to prominence are the results of their own culinary contributions. In any case, in the United States the term “French fry” was alluded to when, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson requested “potatoes served in the French manner” to accompany a White House meal. By 1856, the term “French fried potatoes” was being used in print, first and most notably in an E. Warren cookbook. The term worked its way into English lexicon and the unpretentious side dish began its ascent from humble serving suggestion to culinary legend.


Today, French fries continue to be a prolific side dish all around the world.


In America, French fries are often associated with fast food restaurants, where they are invariably offered as a side. While other side options have been marketed (we’re looking at you, apple slices), none could compete with the highly revered French fry. Salty, fatty, crisp and hot, the French fry makes a perfect vehicle for various burger-oriented condiments, including ketchup, mayonnaise and the ever-popular ranch dressing. What’s more, from a profitability standpoint, French fries are the obvious choice. They’re inexpensive to purchase, quick to make and easy to sell.

But where they really shine is when they don’t sell; price-efficient enough that they can be discarded when they’ve sat too long, French fries keep customers happy without dipping into restaurant profit margins.

But hold onto your hats, Americans, because there are other ways to eat French fries! In Belgium, French fries are an indispensable component in moules-frites, a popular dish consisting of mussels and French fries. According to lore, combining two inexpensive, accessible and plentiful foodstuffs, the aforementioned mussels and potatoes, enabled residents of the Flemish coast to create this now-iconic dish. And while it is much-loved in Belgium, it’s also popular in France and Jersey where the meal is widely featured on menus.

In France, steak frites, which translates “steak and fries” in English, is a prolific dish throughout the country’s brasseries. While the type of steak and sauce used in the preparation has changed over time and between countries, the quintessential French fry is an enduring factor.


So why are French fries so popular? Certainly there are other side dishes that would pair well with a protein. While speculative, it is believed that French fries first gained a following in Europe, popularized by dishes including the aforementioned steak frites and moules-frites. Subsequently, French fries became popular with American soldiers stationed overseas during World War I. When they returned home, they sought their new favorite snack to no avail. At this time, however, America was witnessing the renaissance of the modern fast food restaurant. Inexpensive to prepare and with an already established clientele, White Castle began offering French fries with their hamburgers. The rest, as they say, is history.

The French fry’s meteoric rise from a humble fish-substitute to the world’s quintessential culinary accompaniment has been a long time in the making. Thus, we encourage you to celebrate (and, of course, eat) the world’s greatest and most venerated side dish.

While French fries are the ultimate side dish, that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. Tell us more about yourself and we’ll serve up only the content you’re interested in receiving.

New call-to-action

Topics: Foods & Trends