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Simon's Rock faculty member featured on French television in a documentary on the French fry

Show aired Jan. 6, with Mary Ann Tebben and her research on the French fry in French life and literature, and its very different role in American public life
GREAT BARRINGTON, MA –Mary Ann Tebben, faculty in French at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and a scholar of food history as well, has studied the debut and significance of the French fry in French literature and French life. Tebben appeared on French television in January, featured in an Art Film Documentary. 
Tebben traces the appearance of the French fry in French life, then follows its crossing to America via Thomas Jefferson, and observes the different roles this ubiquitous food plays in French and American cuisine and culture.

 “The potato was not widely adopted as part of the French culinary repertoire until the early 19th century,” says Tebben, but potatoes were known in France in the 16th century – called truffole, triffole, treuffe, or cartoufle. The potato was generally disdained as poor man’s food.  “But the renown of the pomme de terre owes much to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, apothecary and pharmacist of the Invalides [military hospital] under Louis XVI, who promoted its use in the 18th century. He convinced the king of its merits.  On October 21, 1787, Parmentier’s “menu tout en pommes de terre” included fried potatoes as well as coffee made from potatoes that was served at the Invalides.”

Sliced fried potatoes were a recipe in the La Cuisinière Républicaine of 1795-1796. “Fried potatoes cut into strips were the first hot dish sold by street vendors in Paris in the 19th century under several forms, including matchstick (allumettes), “les Pont-Neuf” (thicker cut), and pommes soufflés, mythically attributed to the age of Louis-Philippe when it is said that in 1837, for the celebration of the opening of the new rail line Paris-Saint Germain, a cook refried some frites he had prepared earlier and invented pommes soufflés. 

“The pure form of the frite, as a French product, is necessarily tied to Paris and to the golden age of urban development, when Paris was constructing the French identity for 19th-century Europe. The designation in French that perhaps comes closest to “French fries” is “les Pont Neuf,” she says.  The oldest bridge in Paris (the first stone was laid in 1528) she writes, “it serves as one of the core symbols of Paris, of the monarch, of the French. …The pomme frite was rising in popularity and in symbolism in the 19th century, just as the Pont Neuf itself inspired numerous artists and writers. In culinary history, the French fry probably belongs to the Belgians, but mythologically frites are unquestionably, unalterably Parisian.”

Tebben’s research sites many literary references to pommes frites, as she documents the spread of its popularity among the social classes.  From Flaubert in 1845, to Emile Zola in 1878, to Marcel Proust in 1922, Tebben shows the fruit vendor, the earthy lower classes, and the social elite enjoying the frite. 

Frites become “French” when they cross the sea

“Jefferson is widely credited with bringing the frite to America in the 18th century, following his travels in France,” she writes.

“But the amiable culinary relationship that led to the naming of frites as French fries in English degraded in the 20th century, on both sides,” she says. “With the birth and growth of McDonald’s restaurants, the fast food phenomenon overtook America (rendering French fries ubiquitous here), and quickly spread to Europe, fostering accusations of cultural imperialism and hatching the Slow Food movement in Italy. McDonald’s entered France in the late 1970s in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Paris.”

But it was post 9/11 politics that brought the culinary relationship to a new low. In February of 2003, a diner owner in Beaufort, North Carolina, declared that his restaurant would no longer serve French fries but “freedom fries” in retaliation for the French refusal to sanction the U.S. war on Iraq. The U.S. Congress followed suit, mandating on March 12 that the cafeterias in the House of Representatives would serve “freedom toast” and “freedom fries.”   The French embassy responded, first by pointing out that French fries are actually Belgian, and then declaring: “We are at a very serious moment dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes.”

To read Mary Ann Tebben’s work, click here.