Today, there are about 3,500 frietkots (stands that sell nothing but frietjes) in Belgium—a country the size of Maryland. And it's safe to say that nearly everybody who knows fries knows that the Belgians make them better than anyone else. This may have had something to do with the fact that frietjes were traditionally fried in animal fat (usually rendered beef fat, but there are rumors about some Belgians using horsemeat fat, as well), which imparts a richer flavor to the potatoes. These days, for health reasons, many frietkots (not to mention more formal restaurants) have converted to vegetable oils, and the fries, on the whole, still taste awfully good. So maybe the quality of Belgian fries isn't related to the choice of cooking fat after all, but to the cooking method: Frietjes, which tend to be somewhat thicker than french fries, go into the oil twice, the second time at a higher temperature than the first, to produce an extra-crispy finish. That said, lots of chefs (and home cooks) outside of Belgium already know about the benefits of double-cooking their fries—so maybe Belgian fry superiority lies in the way that frietjes are served: in a cool paper cone, dusted with salt and topped with mayonnaise, big messy blobs of it.
Fries may not have been invented in France, but they grew up there. By the early 19th century, frietjes had been adopted by French chefs, who trimmed them into the skinny strips of potato we are most familiar with today. (Thomas Jefferson supposedly picked up a fry recipe on his travels in France in 1802.) Then, as the French are wont to do in the kitchen, they elaborated on the theme.
"France's different fries," explains Anne Willan, founder of the esteemed École de Cuisine La Varenne in Villecien, in Burgundy, "are not so much about different regions but about different dishes and levels of sophistication." Long, strawlike pommes pailles, she explains, are meant to go with game; neat, matchlike allumettes with lamb chops or chicken; and stumpy, squarish pont neufs (a "slightly snobby fry", says Willan) are typically stacked like Lincoln Logs and served with grilled meats. The French got really fancy with gaufrettes—superthin waffled potato slices—and most of all with pommes soufflées, which have one of those classic stories of culinary serendipity attached to them: According to legend, at a party to celebrate the opening of the rail link between Paris and suburban St-Germain-en-Laye in 1837, the chef prepared conventional pommes frites in anticipation of the first train's arrival. When the train was delayed, he set the fries aside; then, when it eventually came, he plunged the frites back into hot oil. Because of the cut of the frites, the type of potato, and probably just blind luck, they puffed up like balloons. Talk about a happy accident. Unfortunately, these fries are as frustrating to create as they are dramatic: Some of your pommes soufflées, Julia Child warns, will stubbornly refuse to souffler.
Thankfully, fries are simpler outside of France. In Great Britain, for example, where they're known as chips (and potato chips are known as crisps), they're simply thick-cut potatoes fried to a light golden color and moistened with malt vinegar. In Spain, the patatas fritas are fries like your mom makes (or used to make, in my case)—they're a little soft, and, because the slices are uneven, can be very done on the ends and not quite so done in the middle. They're typically made with olive oil, which lends them a nice, fruity flavor, but aren't as crispy as other fries. Nevertheless, these are comforting fries, especially when served in the proper Spanish tradition, at breakfast with fried eggs.
Then there's the U.S. According to a division of The NPD Group, the market research service, that tracks national eating trends, almost a fourth of all dishes served in American restaurants today come with fries on the side—usually straightforward French-style ones, but this being the land of plenty, America offers varieties ranging from Texas fries, which, like everything Texan, are extra-big, to disco fries, which are curly like pigs' tails and dusted with cheesy seasoning, to sweet potato fries, which are another tricky fry to make, due to all the sugar in the potato. Truth be told, most American fries, plain or fancy, are frozen. The J. R. Simplot Company figured out how to do this successfully—using a complex system of peeling, slicing, blanching, drying, and frying, before freezing—in the 1950s. These days, America's frozen fry industry is a $3-billion business—producing some nine billion pounds of fries in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available. We often think that fresh is best, but some chefs, like Michael McCarty of Michael's in New York and Santa Monica, claim to like frozen better. "Believe it or not," McCarty wrote in his 1989 Michael's Cookbook (Macmillan), "good-quality bulk frozen potatoes cut into 1/4-inch-thick fries are your best bet for dependable French-style pommes frites." The Japanese obviously agree; they buy 50 percent of all American frozen fry exports.
There is, however, an unavoidable dark side to the fry story. "Potatoes [which are full of vitamins B and C] are a very good food," says Dr. Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, "but when you make fries, you've essentially cut the potatoes up and added fat without adding anything else." A large order of fries, she calculates, packs in 450 calories and about 22 grams of fat—enough to make the health-conscious feel positively queasy. That may be why I was the only one in the bar at Quatorze Bis enjoying a plate of fries for dinner.
If you were there that night—or if you've been somewhere similar recently, or just at home, and found yourself longing for fries but reluctant to have them, may I suggest that this might be a situation in which it's worth throwing caution to the wind—at least once in a while. Well-made fries, I assure you, are just as good as you remember them, and even if they are "bad", as I said before, that's part of what makes them so good.