Opinion

Why I Don't Like French Fries

Opinion columnist Caitlin Raux Gunther is at it again: a very unpopular take on everyone’s favorite food.

Photo by James Ransom

There are certain categories of opinion you keep to yourself. A friend reconciles with an ex whom you know is no good. Or you can’t stomach an episode of the television series (about tempestuous families and their imaginary kingdoms and dragons) that everyone seems to adore.

It’s not just that the opinion is unpopular—which it might be. Or that you’re avoiding denouncing something innocent for the sake of controversy—which, considering the bigger picture these days, is pretty harmless anyway. It’s that you’d rather not destroy the ground you stand on to say something in the first place—so you keep it to yourself.

At the risk of exposing myself as an insentient person who writes about food, here’s an opinion: I don’t like French fries.

I can’t say it boils down to their health profile, either. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “weapon[s] of dietary destruction,” but I think we can all agree: starch dressed with fat, salt, and dipping sauce might not win dinner of the year.

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Top Comment:
“To cover french fries in sauces and mayonnaisey dressings is just to cover them up. I recently ate fries at a breakfast place and had to go up and say wow your fries are wonderful. I've had them in the past with a burger in the evening and didn't like them. The waitress said they had just changed their source. These fries stay crispy, don't wrinkle in 10 to 15 minutes as they cool. It is my firm opinion, for the discerning eater that light golden, not darker, a fry to cry over, a fabulous french fry.”
— Sarah B.
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I imagine my feelings toward French fries approximate the way cat people see dogs—they don’t dislike them, per se. They might even reluctantly give them a scratch behind the ears, the way I poach a skinny fry from my husband’s plate of steak frites. But it’s just not their thing.

My opinion is unusual, I know. Most people have uncomplicated, warm feelings toward French fries, which is why they’ve been a vegetable staple for centuries.

To dig deeper into the history of les frites, I consulted my French food bible: François-Régis Gaudry’s On Va Deguster La France, a book with the thoroughness of an encyclopedia and the voice of your food-enthusiast best friend (or rather, friends; the book’s contributors include dozens of chefs, artisans, journalists, sommeliers and others). It’s the equivalent of wearing a chef’s toque with Crocs—professional but also fun. Weighing in at nearly seven pounds, I perused it several times in-store before committing to lugging it home. But I assure you, Francophile readers, it's worth it.

According to OVDLF, the first known mention of fries was in 1760, when an abbot at a monastery in Burgundy tried to poison a friar by sprinkling arsenic over—you guessed it—“fried potatoes.” (Here is at least one situation, maybe the only, where my unsavory opinion would be my saving grace!) The first recipe committed to paper appeared in Paris a few years later.

Though they may have been invented in France, fries were perfected by the Belgians, who improved their texture and taste by cutting them into batons and developing what’s now widely accepted as the essential technique: double-frying, first in beef fat and then in vegetable oil. The result is a fried potato that’s “less greasy than you’d think. Its surface, a deep gold, glistens; its crust crackles as you take a bite, and the savory interior is always succulent and creamy.”

If that description doesn’t make your pulse quicken, what will?

My research continued. I wanted to see whether the real thing might inspire in me a new appreciation for deep-fried potatoes, so I visited De Clercq, which, says a comprehensive guide to French frites restaurants, is the only place in Paris that prepares authentic, Belgian fries.

My husband Guillaume and I split a large order, which came in a paper cone and was massive even by American standards. They were, as far as I could tell, very good fries: thin but not spindly, with a golden brown, crispy exterior giving way to a soft, bordering on creamy, interior. We ordered them with two sauces: mayonnaise and “Samurai,” which approximated a spicy version of Thousand Island dressing.

One fry was good. Two was fine. By the third, my mouth was restless.

I told Guillaume they weren’t salty enough, and to add salt now would be like salting already-cooked eggs—it might cling to the surface but it could never save the bland inside. I told him they were only palatable with plenty of sauce and, therefore, could not be considered delicious on their own.

“I think this article is bad for you,” Guillaume said.

“For my career as a food writer?” I asked, concerned.

“No,” he told me. “You’re losing your mind.”

I laughed and dipped another fry into the mayonnaise.

Mouth: restless. Photo by Caitlin Raux Gunther

Maybe my issue lies in the monotony of eating a plate of fries. I once read an interview with the chef of a very esteemed Northern California restaurant. Each dish, he explained, is just a few bites. That way, the mouth stays entertained, continually titillated by new flavors and textures. I found myself nodding as I read the interview and silently promising to visit his restaurant someday—perhaps at the very grown-up bachelorette party I’d undoubtedly have before marrying my then nonexistent fiancé.

Yes, I decided, that would be unforgettable.

When the time came for my actual wedding, I didn’t make it to California, but I did go to a club in New York City’s Times Square district. Geared toward bachelorettes, the place smelled like cleaning fluid and Long Island iced teas. Instead of amuse bouches, we entertained our mouths with overpriced, bad champagne. And believe you me: You never forget your first time in a room full of hysterical brides, plus a firefighter, a policeman, a soldier, and a cowboy.

In France, just as in the United States, people eat fries with greasy fast foods like cheeseburgers and kebabs. (Once you get your clothes wet, you may as well jump in the pool, right?) But they serve them as counterparts to fine proteins in sit-down establishments, too—for example, alongside beautiful rib-eye steaks and heaps of steaming mussels cooked in white wine. They are but a starchy tool for sopping up the rich, flavorful juices.

Maybe it’s a matter of context and fries should play no more than supporting role, serving as a textural and gustatory foil.

In his memoir about life in Paris in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway writes about lunch with a poet friend at “the best and the most expensive [restaurant] in the Boulevard St. Michel quarter.” The meal begins with a couple dozen flat oysters and ends with steaks and Bearnaise sauce, a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape (“not a luncheon wine,” writes Hemingway), and, of course, French-fried potatoes.

On the topic of potatoes in Love in a Dish ... And Other Culinary Delights, M.F.K. Fisher writes, “If, French fried, they make a grilled sirloin of beef taste richer ...”

Maybe I'm overthinking the whole matter. But then again, I like overthinking it, even if loved ones express concern that I’m losing my mind sometimes. To imagine that it all began with a plot that reads like a cheap murder mystery novel—a cleric trying to off another cleric at a monastery in the 1700s—just tickles me.

Recently, I buttered a baguette with good Breton butter flecked with sea salt. I buy it by the block at my supermarket (for just two to three euros), and spread it generously like cheese. As I enjoyed my snack, I told my sister Mary Alice that I regretted all the years I didn’t eat bread and butter—there was a less-happy swath in my twenties when I tried following a low-carb diet and shunned the bread bowl.

“Next for you: French fries,” she texted back.

I wasn’t so sure. Fries might never do it for me. But I’m open to persuasion.

French fries, yay or nay? Let us know in the comments below.

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Caitlin is a Paris-based writer and editor. She wrote about food and wine while living in Madrid after college, and had a brief career as a lawyer before moving back to Spain to work in restaurants and attend culinary courses at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian. She has worked or staged at Septime in Paris, Mina and Nerua in Bilbao, and Bien Cuit in Brooklyn. In 2018, she and her husband launched a pop-up sandwich shop in Mallorca, Spain. Caitlin now lives in an ovenless apartment in the 9th arrondissement with her husband, Guillaume, and daughter, Mimi.

21 Comments

W April 2, 2020
Mayo on french fries... Never tried pommes allumettes? Grew up in a food desert? Try thin cut on a tray with a thin layer of olive oil. Otherwise you are very non authorative on french cuisine.
 
Tyler K. March 31, 2020
I agree with you. I don't like fries. I find them to be in a word... Boring. The problem is that they are everywhere. I would much prefer onion rings, fried cheese curds, fried okra, fried zucchini, pretty much anything. Potatoes in general can not stand up on their own, without a lot of help. They are cheap filler and quite frankly a poor afterthought. Just my opinion. But I stand by it.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. April 1, 2020
SAME!
 
Sarah B. March 15, 2020
The very photograph of the fries that were shown are why some people don't like fries. I love them lightly fried, golden, crisp on the outside tender on the inside. They are served overcooked in most places. The English put just salt and malt vinegar on them. To cover french fries in sauces and mayonnaisey dressings is just to cover them up. I recently ate fries at a breakfast place and had to go up and say wow your fries are wonderful. I've had them in the past with a burger in the evening and didn't like them. The waitress said they had just changed their source. These fries stay crispy, don't wrinkle in 10 to 15 minutes as they cool. It is my firm opinion, for the discerning eater that light golden, not darker, a fry to cry over,
a fabulous french fry.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. March 15, 2020
Love it when something's so good you can't NOT ask for more infos.
 
amazinc March 15, 2020
In a tiny Belgian restaurant in south town San Antonio (Le Fritte), they serve "the real thing" mussels & Pommes Frites. Best fries ever and the mussels aren't shabby, either. Good, good! I could eat my substantial weight in those fries. The only thing better on their menu (when it's on offer) is the Foie gras with blueberry coulis, skip the blueberries.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. March 15, 2020
YUM. Sounds like a true gem.
 
arnita March 15, 2020
French Fries are the salty equivalent of a rich and decadent dessert- they should be consumed in moderation ie. 10 maximum. I love a good fry that’s still a bit smooshy... anything to crunchy turns me off. Like you, if it’s not well salted and can’t stand alone, there’s no need to eat it. All sauces are a no go, especially ketchup, but mayonnaise and fries is a European anomaly that I will never understand.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. March 15, 2020
Can I get a burger with three fries? I'd be set with three, haha. Intéressante, re: mayonnaise! I have another unpopular opinion: American mayo (good old Hellmans) is superior to the sweet French stuff.
 
Kim March 21, 2020
5 fries. 3 to put on the burger, 2 to be dragged through Hellman’s. And yes, leaps and bounds better than the French stuff.
 
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Caitlin R. March 21, 2020
this is very validating — THANK YOU, Kim!
 
Debra W. March 14, 2020
I grew up on homemade fried chicken and homemade french fries up til my late 30s. Best dish in the world.
 
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Caitlin R. March 14, 2020
Yum to homemade fried chicken. Would like the recipe for that.
 
Smaug March 14, 2020
I'm strongly in favor of people deciding for themselves what they like. In this case, however, the problem may have been not the fries but the mayonnaise, a ghastly substance that will ruin any dish.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. March 14, 2020
Mayo is so polarizing!! I love it, but also, understand not loving it.
 
sarahrhack March 13, 2020
I don't like that ex or GOT either!

But I do LOVE french fries.

While this is an extremely well-researched and beautifully-written piece, I would ask you to please consider fries as a compliment to a strong drink. Like peanuts with beers at baseball games or papas fritas served with sidra in Spain, french fries are my favorite salty compliment to a strong dry martini.
 
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Caitlin R. March 14, 2020
You and me at the bar at Cafe Loup, 2 dirty martinis and yes, always some fries <3
 
HalfPint March 13, 2020
I'm picky about my fries. Yes, they should be crispy but they should also be 'fatties', think steak fries. I've never had patience with shoestring fries. My preference is for texture and those wispy and often limp shoestrings don't check any of these boxes. Once a year, I get major cravings for fries. Nothing else, just fries. So dinner is a large (supersized!) order of fries then I'm satisfied until next year :)
 
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Caitlin R. March 14, 2020
If you're going all in, I think the Belgian ones are a good way to itch that itch. Very steak-y ;)
 
So S. March 13, 2020
I love April Bloomfield's thrice cooked fries at The Breslin in NYC
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. March 14, 2020
Loooove the lamb burger there