According to the Belgian art historian (and founder of the Frietmuseum, a Bruges museum devoted to Belgium’s history with the potato) Paul Ilegems, it seems the Spanish Saint Teresa de Ávila might have invented French fries. The evidence is to be found in a letter that the saint sent on December 19, 1577, to the Superior of the Convent of the Carmen in Seville, in which she thanked her for sending along some potatoes and other goods. The letter reads “I received your letter, and with it the potatoes, the barrel and seven lemons. Everything arrived in good shape.”
But journalist and food critic Cristino Álvarez published an article explaining why he does not think Ilegems is right: “St. Teresa surely never fried this tuber. The potato she refers to is the ‘Málaga potato,’ a variant of what we commonly refer to as ‘sweet potato,’ which Columbus brought from Haiti as he came back from his first trip. Regular potatoes didn’t arrive to Europe until half a century later.”
But what we do know for sure is that as early as 1573, a hospital received loads of potatoes coming from one of the convents of the Discalced Carmelites, the order reformed by Teresa of Avila. It’s all registered in the hospital’s ledgers.
In any case, Ilegems himself offers a second theory — one more appropriate to the head of a Belgian potato museum: perhaps French fries were invented by Belgian fishermen, who liked to fry sardines. It seems they just added potatoes to the pan from the very moment potatoes arrived in Belgium in the year 1650.
Of course, the French would not agree. After all, they’re called “French fries.” The French version claims that by the end of the 18th century, one could see vendors making the kind of frites we’re used to and selling them by the river, by the Parisian Pont Neuf.
The name, however, is complicated. Belgians explain that the term “French fries” became popular during the First World War, when Belgian soldiers, who would speak French in order to communicate themselves with everyone else, offered fries to American soldiers, who then baptized them as “French.”
The British, of course, refer to French fries as chips. But potato chips as we know them are a New York invention. In fact, one could almost claim it was an accident. Rumor has it they were invented in 1853, in a New York restaurant. The chef of the restaurant, fed up with the constant complaints of a client who always reproached him for not cutting the fries thin enough, decided to give him a lesson by cutting them as thin as possible, so that he could not even prick them with the fork. To his surprise, the customer was so satisfied with it that he spread the word, and soon all customers began to request the restaurant’s new specialty.