NEW YORK >> Fried or baked, sprinkled with truffle oil or flavored with crumbled herbs, french fries are an enduring dish, fancied up or served the simple way around the globe.
But what do we REALLY know about the history of the lowly sliced potato, or in a broader sense, the lowly sliced yam, okra or just about any vegetable that can be, well, sliced and fried, sauteed or roasted, coated or battered. Blogs, books and recipes abound. Add to the record a kitschy, new book, "Fries! An Illustrated Guide to the World's Favorite Food," by a restaurateur from the heart of potato country, Boise, Idaho.
Blake Lingle, co-founder and co-owner of the Boise Fry Company, with four locations there and one in Portland, Oregon, has some fun with his bite-size guide, written not for the hardcore foodie or food historian but the rest of us — just regular old potato lovers.
Lingle makes clear that he's no food scholar. To sum up the history of fries, he broadened their definition beyond sliced potatoes, to include yams, sweet potatoes and other vegetables prepared in different ways. Therein lies some interesting conjecture.
For instance, one of the earlier references to frying is the Bible's Leviticus, 2:7 to be exact: "If your grain offering is cooked in a pan, it is to be made of the finest flour and some olive oil." Is it possible that a vegetable made its way into the pan, Lingle wonders. The book of Numbers references cucumbers and leeks, among other things, in 11:5.
Some historians claim that Egyptians were frying foods as early as 2500 BC. Lingle is betting that vegetables were among them.
But the Romans wrote stuff down, including what is considered the world's oldest cookbook, the Apicius, likely compiled between the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. It includes a recipe for fried chicken with fried vegetables. Lingle found no evidence, however, that vegetables were sliced.
More to the point and elsewhere in the world, it's probable that sliced potatoes were included in an Andean dish called Pachamanca during the Inca Empire. If so, the Andean fry predated the European fry by a few hundred years. The Spanish stole the potato, and possibly the sweet potato, from the Incas and brought it to Europe, Lingle said.
But it was a Belgian journalist, Jo Gerard, who claimed sliced potatoes were being fried alongside fish in his country in the late 1600s, predating the same claim by the French by three quarters to a full century, Lingle said.
The Belgians blame the Americans for mistakenly giving french fries the name when they confused French-speaking Belgian soldiers in possession of some sort of fried esculents with French-speaking French soldiers during World War I.
Regardless, Belgium does appear to consume more fries per capita than any other country, Lingle said.
"There seems to be a certain amount of conflicting information out there," he added in a recent interview. "I don't know what the true answer is."
Fries remain all over the map, as a default side in the Americas and Europe, and often considered among the national dishes of Britain and Belgium when served with fish and mussels, respectively, Lingle said.
So where are most potatoes grown?
Fifty years ago, China was the world's fifth-largest producer behind the USSR, Germany, Poland and the United States. Today, China is the largest producer, Lingle writes. But in per-capita terms, when it comes to potato and fry consumption, Americans eat twice as many potatoes as the Chinese.
Next to no research exists on fry consumption by country, beyond the frozen-fry market, Lingle writes. Most fries are initially cooked in factories and cooked again in homes, restaurants and "friteries."
One thing is sure: chefs are having a fry field day, Lingle said. Many are hand-cutting, inventing signature coatings and dips and experimenting with techniques often reserved for other foods, such as dehydration and sous vide, the method of sealing food in plastic bags then placing them in water baths or steam.
And then there's the hash brown question. Are they fries?
"Yeah I think hash browns are fries," Lingle laughed. "If it's been sliced and then cooked some way it's, in my opinion, a fry."