Fry by night

Hi Ace. Bastille Day is coming up, and I was wondering: Can you, gourmand that you are, explain to us why French toast is neither French nor toast? And what are French fries, really?—She-Don’t-Use-Jelly-in-Charlottesville

Why are carrots more orange than oranges? Why is Iceland greener than icy Greenland? Why does time fly like an arrow, whereas fruit flies like an apple?

Riddle Ace this, Virginia Highway Patrol: Why do they call it a restroom if you can’t discreetly sleep in it?

French toast, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been part of the English culinary lexicon since 1660 at least, referring to bread fried in wine, orange juice and sugar, with egg-based variations appearing in 1882. However, the dish likely originates in medieval Spain, where torrijas were common fare as early as the 15th century. Broadly, the practice of frying bread in eggs, dairy and spices was no gourmet innovation, but a way to make stale bread edible.

Indeed, French toast is more fry than toast. Which brings Ace to the French fry, originally a relic of the Meuse valley in the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, circa 1680. According to Belgian journalist Jo Gérard: “The poor inhabitants of this region allegedly had the custom of accompanying their meals with small fried fish, but when the river was frozen and they were unable to fish, they cut potatoes lengthwise and fried them in oil to accompany their meals.” Belgian fries, which the French call pommes frites, first found their way into the mouths of famished American servicemen as they arrived in Belgium during World War I. So how did the misnomer arise? French, as it happens, was the official language of the Belgian Army at the time. 

Ace doesn’t know what it says about us Anglos that we weren’t able to tell the difference, but hey—if it weren’t for us Yanks, they’d be called German fries. And to be fair, frites were known to us as French long before the Great War, by some accounts—notably that of Thomas Jefferson, whose records from 1801-1809 contain a recipe for “potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings,” which almost certainly came from Jefferson’s French chef, Honoré Julien.

Note that both French toast and the French fry were inventions of dietary necessity, which leads Ace to believe that the adjective “French,” rather than signifying national origin, merely connotes desperation.  

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com.

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