Simon's Rock faculty member Maryann Tebben featured on French television in a documentary on the French fry
By Jessica Willis
The Berkshire Eagle
February 22, 2008
GREAT BARRINGTON — The French hail them as a national treasure and serve them with mussels, steak and champagne. On this side of the pond, we dump them in our car's console and eat them by the fistful as we drive.
In France, the crispy golden morsels are called les frites. Here, they are known as french fries, and their status — as icon, as fast food — has not gone unnoticed by a local professor.
"It's a very simple product," said Maryann Tebben, an associate professor of French at Bard College at Simon's Rock. "But in France, frites are an art."
She noted that the food has been mentioned in French journals and literature for more than a century: It has appeared in works by Flaubert and Céline, and in Émile Zola's "Le Ventre de Paris," published in 1873, a character who aspires to the higher classes yet eats frites bought from a street vendor.
"That was an elegant lunch," Tebben said.
Tebben has been teaching a French Food, Culture and Literature class for several years, and in 2006, she published a paper, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, about the frite's relationship to French identity and literature.
The interview was used in an hour-long Artline Films documentary called "Once Upon a French Fry" that aired Jan. 6 on France's Channel 5.
During François' visit, Tebben took him to the Miss Adams Diner. The Adams eatery, which is now closed, had many, many kinds of fries, including chili fries, which Tebben ordered. Faced with a mound of golden brown potatoes, chili and cheese, the filmmaker experienced severe culture shock.
"He was freaked out," Tebben grinned. Ditto for the sweet potato fries, which he had never seen before, she said.
A Belgian man who is opening a museum devoted to the history of the frite also was featured in the film, and a member of the Belgian Parliament was interviewed about the frite.
Belgians maintain that the food originated in their country, and not in France, Tebben said, noting that 2008 is the "international year of the potato."
She will be presenting more findings on the food at a conference in France later this year.
When François asked Tebben to take him to her favorite french-style fry place, she had to tell him that such a place did not exist. All over France and Belgium, tiny frite kiosks, known as fritures, are ubiquitous.
"He didn't want to know that we eat our fries in the car," Tebben said. "And that sometimes we eat them cold. French people don't understand. There have been days that I've eaten three meals in my car. That makes no sense to them."
Her personal favorite fry? It's a toss-up between two fast-food giants.
"I appreciate Burger King's fries," Tebben said, adding that the chain was going after the commuters by introducing a new french fry container shaped to fit perfectly in the drink holder.
"But McDonald's are the ones for me. And (chef) Julia Child liked their fries, too."
French fry history
Sources: Maryann Tebben and www.stim.com