When I lived in Greenwich Village years ago, my great solitary indulgence was a neighborhood restaurant called Bruxelles. The Belgian establishment was just the right blend of casual and elegant, with white tablecloths, leather banquettes, and Chimay Bleue on tap. It was the perfect little bistro for a satisfying, solo dining experience.
At Bruxelles, I first tasted Belgian beer, mussels, and carbonade flamande, a delectable stew. But the standout was pommes frites (God forbid a Belgian give credit to the French for one of their national treasures). Bruxelles’ were about 4 inches long and of medium width (somewhere between a steak fry and a fast-food fry), though they weren’t uniform, so I knew someone in the kitchen was hand-cutting them. They had a perfect, audible crunch and a soft center. They were served vertically in a sheet of wax paper folded into a large metal milkshake cup. They remain among the best fries I’ve ever tasted.
I despaired of ever meeting another fry of the same stature.
That is, until I moved to Palm Springs. You may scoff at that, but I am neither a desert jingoist nor a shame-less booster. It was in this valley that I first tasted duck-fat fries. My first batch was at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, though they don’t have quite as perfect a crunch as chef Philippe Coupain’s version at Si Bon in Rancho Mirage.
When my need for frites is acute, I can feed my addiction within walking distance of my office at Pomme Frite, an aptly named Belgian bistro smack-dab in the center of the Tourist Trough, aka South Palm Canyon in downtown Palm Springs. Chef and owner Jean-Claude Constant, a native of Spa, Belgium, is in his 19th season at the bistro, and he knows a thing or two about fries.
“It’s all about the timing,” he says. “A good pomme frite has crunch and a soft center. To get that, you must have the right temperature in the fryer and know exactly how long they must cook. And it doesn’t end there. You must know how long they must rest, when the salt goes on, and how long you have to deliver them to the table. If they sit too long … pfffft … they are finished. I can never understand customers who want to take home leftover fries. What are they going to do with them? They’re dead!”
Constant is well enough versed in frites to remember having them deep-fried in beef fat, the traditional Belgian frying liquid. He allows that almost any oil will work, though he keeps the recipe for his a closely guarded secret. All I can report is that it’s fairly neutral and doesn’t steal the show from the potatoes, as duck-fat fries tend to do.
Pomme Frite and Bruxelles are as close to frite perfection as you can likely get in the United States, since the preferred Belgian potato variety, bintje, has no equivalent here — though russet Burbanks have just the right amount of starch to produce the requisite crunch.
Whatever you call them — french fries, Belgian fries, chips — few foods elicit such strong opinions, even passion, as does this simple fried vegetable. I was once called ignorant and elitist and almost fell under a rain of blows because I had the temerity to dismiss a certain ubiquitous fast-food fry. Eventually, my wife calmed down.
OK, let’s say you find the perfect fry. The next question is what goes best with it?
No, poutine doesn’t count, because it is a culinary abomination. (But hey, Canada, we’re still grateful for Gretzky, Wonderbras, and the snowmobile). And neither does that curry mayonnaise you had in Amsterdam. I know you remember it as the best thing you ever put in your mouth, but that’s because you were really, really stoned.
The answer is ketchup. Tomato ketchup. Sweet, with just a kick of vinegar and a host of mysterious, secret ingredients. It is the condiment man has been seeking to perfect for at least 2,000 years.
It might be a good piece of mythology to imagine a scene in which a young, rural American genius blew his mother’s kitchen to bits and accidently discovered the potato’s affinity for the tomato. In fact, it was a process thousands of years in the making. That they ended up as the most popular fast-food combination on Earth some might call a miracle. Others might call it destiny.
A spud originally
referred to the shovel
used by the Irish to plant their potatoes
(possibly a colloquialism of spade).
Mr. Potato Head
was the first toy
advertised on U.S.
are not in the same family
of plants. Sweet potatoes
are in the same genus as
the morning glory.
In 1995, a potato was
aboard the space
shuttle Columbia. It was
the first time a plant has
been grown in space.
The world’s largest potato
weighed 18 pounds, 4 ounces,
according to Guinness.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TRAVIS RATHBONE/TRUNK ARCHIVE
NEW WORLD WONDERS
Some 6,000 years ago in the Andes of what is now central Peru, an either exceedingly brave or appallingly stupid farmer made the decision to domesticate the poisonous wild potato plant. Though there must have been some angry tummies for a few generations, the tuber became part of the staple diet of the Andean people. Unlike today, where we might see a half-dozen varieties of potatoes in the supermarket, the Andean people have a couple hundred, each suited to the region’s diverse microclimates, from the dry, lowland coastal plain to the 12,000-foot altiplano. All these varieties have special names, according to John Reader in Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, including those that translate to guinea-pig fetus, cow’s tongue, and my personal favorite, the potato-that-makes-the-young-bride-weep-because-it-is-so-difficult-to-peel.
Though the great civilizations that rose and fell in Peru had other important foods (quinoa finally got the nutritional recognition it deserves), the potato was the fuel that built these empires. Although 79 percent water, a fresh potato provides nearly all the vitamins a body requires (except A and D). Add a little llama milk, and you have the perfect diet. Best of all, the potato has an amazing shelf life. The ancient storage method was to leave the spud out in the elements for a few weeks and then stomp on it to release the remaining water. This chuno (in essence, the first potato chip) could be stored for up to a decade before reconstitution and yet retained its nutritional value and, of course, the indescribable piquancy of your family’s feet.
The Spanish did not see gold in the potato. It and other New World crops such as manioc, peanuts, and beans were used to feed slaves who mined for actual gold. Those foods were not considered sophisticated enough for the — literally — white-bread tastes of Europeans. After arriving in Europe, the potato was toyed with by horticulturalists and fed to lunatics and prisoners but otherwise ignored for 250 years.
In a happy coincidence, the wild vine that eventually produced the tomato originated alongside the potato on the slopes of the Andes. (In fact, they are the same genus, Solanum, which also includes the eggplant.) It produced a tiny berry, though there is no evidence to suggest that this was ever domesticated in South America. It’s theorized that migrating birds ate the berry and eventually shit the seeds all over Central America and Mexico.
Those Mesoamerican ancients recognized a culinary kindred spirit in the tomato. They’d long domesticated a green, husked vegetable we now know as the tomatillo. Tomatoes were eventually bred into prominence during the Aztec period and were called tomatl. The Aztecs made a paste of them with chiles. When Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he was most certainly served this salsa to liven up his tortillas and beans … the undeserving, homicidal bastard.
The tomato, too, made its journey to the Old World, where, just like the potato, it was alternately looked upon as a curiosity, a nice table decoration, or — by the majority of the population — poison. Even in Italy, where it was called pomo d’oro (golden fruit), it was nearly 300 years before it entered mainstream cuisine and almost 400 before someone thought to spread it on a pizza.
So what was the hang-up?
Part of the problem was scientific. In the 16th century, a period of heavy exploration, hundreds of new plants were arriving in the Old World, and scientists were scrambling to classify them. Potatoes and tomatoes were classified in the nightshade family, which in fact, does contain poisonous plants such as belladonna and jimson weed.
Another problem was culinary. The first tubers to reach Europe were small and tubular, rather than the big, fat russets and Yukon Golds we know today. And eating green potatoes may make a person sick, so there was some truth to the suspicions of poison. Basically, no one knew what to do with them. The first Old World food tester to bite into an unskinned, boiled potato with no butter, sour cream, or chives probably did not write a favorable review. Tomatoes, meanwhile, are fruit, and given the choice between a ripe peach and a raw tomato, the latter finished a distant second.
Lastly, there was an aesthetic prejudice. The eyes of a potato reminded people of leprosy, and rumors spread throughout Europe that the spud could transmit the disease. For the tomato, among other objections, there was sexual prejudice. In Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy, David Gentilcore recounts how early Spanish explorers, when splitting open tomatillos, were reminded of female genitalia and considered the fruit “horrible and obscene.” Clearly, the joys of oral sex were still in the future.
Sweet, with just a kick of vinegar and a host of mysterious, secret ingredients. It is the condiment man has been seeking to perfect for at least 2,000 years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LEVI BROWN/TRUNK ARCHIVE
The earliest ketchup in Western civilization
was a fish paste known to ancient
Greeks and Romans as garum.
The ancient Chinese fish sauce condiment
ke-tsiap made its way to Indonesia,
where it became known as ketjap,
a condiment likely encountered by European sailors
in the 16th century. The sauce was made from pickled fish brine.
Because the sauce brought back to
from the Far East could not be duplicated,
mushrooms were most widely used as the base
for early English ketchup. A mushroom-based
version can still be found in the
British Isles as a homemade condiment.
The earliest written
recipe for tomata catsup
dates from 1817 and includes anchovy paste,
a nod to its fish sauce antecedents.
Today’s tomato ketchup
difficult to pour due to the addition
of xanthan gum, which gives it a pseudoplastic
property, making it resistant to flow
unless a considerable force is applied.
EUROPE SEES THE LIGHT
It wasn’t until the 1750s that Europe produced a ruler who knew how to make his peasants eat their vegetables. Frederick the Great, to relieve famine, ordered all his Prussian subjects to grow potatoes. Failure to do so would result in the loss of one’s nose and ears. Not surprisingly, Germans, legendary at taking orders seriously, remain among the world’s top potato consumers.
A few years later, during the Seven Years War, a French pharmacist named Parmentier was imprisoned in Germany and fed a diet of potatoes and gin. He gave full credit to the potato for his survival (though, surprisingly, gave little credit to the morale-boosting effects of gin) and set out to convert the French. He found willing patrons in Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who wore potato flowers and hosted lavish potato banquets. (It was at one of these that Benjamin Franklin may have first tasted a fried potato.) Still, the peasantry wasn’t buying it (luckily, Marie didn’t say, “Let them eat potatoes!”), so Parmentier leased a few acres on the outskirts of Paris and planted some there. He posted guards around the plot during the day but left it unguarded at night. As he predicted, many of the potato plants disappeared during the night and were soon flowering all over the French countryside.
Yet, in no place was the potato more popular than Ireland. Because of subjugation and exploitation by the English, Irish farmers were forced to export a bounty of meat, dairy, grain, and vegetables just to pay the landlord. The potato saved the Irish from starvation but may have contributed to an unprecedented population explosion in the early 19th century. The peoples of the Andes had learned to protect their yield through varieties. Europe in the early to mid-19th century had just one. So, when the blight hit in the 1840s, it destroyed everything.
It’s estimated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Irish died during the famine years, and another 2 million emigrated — one of the most dramatic examples of how a single food changed world history. Without the Irish diaspora, there would have been no Kennedy dynasty, no Ford Model T, no Reaganomics, no Che Guevara posters, no Stephen Colbert, no Springsteen, Eugene O’Neill, George Clooney, Judy Garland … and no Conan O’Brien, for God’s sake!
The potato had made its return journey to the Western Hemisphere and was firmly established in New England by the late 1700s. Its future respectability was assured when President Thomas Jefferson served fried potatoes (French style?) at a White House dinner in 1802.
Meanwhile, the tomato was starting at the top and working its way down. By the 17th century, it was a common ingredient in Spanish cooking. At that time, the Spanish empire dominated not only the New World but much of the Mediterranean. Sardinia embraced the tomato immediately, but mainland Italy — the country with which we most associate the fruit — was more reluctant. But because many nobles of southern Italy were Spanish, they instructed their Italian chefs to employ the golden apple. One such chef, Antonio Latini, was the first to publish a recipe for tomato sauce, in 1690, which he dubbed salsa di pomodoro alla spagnola (tomato sauce, Spanish style).
It would be another 100 years before tomatoes became synonymous with southern Italian cooking, but by that time the courtship had become a full-blown love affair. In 1889 in Naples, a baker named Raffaele Esposito wanted to honor the visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita. He made a thin foccacia, spread tomato sauce on it, then decorated it with basil leaves — thus creating the margherita, the first modern pizza, and inspiring the white, red, and green of Italy’s flag.
By the late 18th century, salsa di pomodoro was on a fateful collision course with man’s eternal quest for the perfect condiment.
China is now the
largest potato-producing nation,
followed by India, Russia,
Ukraine, and the U.S.
The ancestor of
European potato came from
the island of Chiloé in Chile.
of the potatoes grown
in the U.S. New York
is the largest consumer.
The world’s largest
was produced by Pringles in
Jackson, Tennessee. It measured
23 by 14.5 inches.
The average American
137.9 pounds of potatoes
each year, of which
approximately 55.3 pounds
are frozen, usually french fries,
and nearly 17 pounds are potato chips.
Towering over Route 159 in Collinsville, Illinois, stands the world’s largest ketchup bottle. Built for the now-defunct Brooks Food, which made Brooks Tomato Catsup until 1963, the 74-foot bottle never held ketchup (or catsup) but water for the ketchup-/catsup-making operation. In a public television special, Ketchup: King of Condiments, a spokesman for Collinsville’s annual ketchup festival stated that in bygone days, residents would have never considered using any ketchup but Brooks’. This was true across America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it seemed every other town boasted a local version.
Those local ketchups have largely disappeared, supplanted by giants such as Heinz, Del Monte, and Hunt’s. Just a state away from Collinsville is the world’s largest ketchup factory, in Fremont, Ohio. Here, Heinz fills 4 million 14-ounce ketchup bottles per day — more than 1 billion annually. In giant cookers, they whip up 250,000 pounds of secret sauce per hour. Heinz has subsidiary factories in 11 other countries. It is safe to say that ketchup is now eaten in almost every country on Earth.
The seemingly insatiable thirst for the perfect condiment dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (and perhaps even earlier in Asia), where the latter were particularly attached to a fish sauce called garum or liquamen. When the age of exploration began, during the Renaissance, it was not so much a search for gold as a search for the spices in demand all over Europe. When European sailors reached the Far East in the 1600s, they found and embraced a cornucopia of fish sauces. In Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, Andrew Smith writes that the sailors encountered an Indonesian brined fish sauce called ketjap, which may have descended from an older Chinese sauce called ke-tsiap.
As it was too expensive to import in bulk, English recipes in the mid-17th century recommended the use of anchovies, mushrooms, walnuts, and even beans from the New World to emulate the elusive quality of this condiment. That quality is now known as umami, the fifth taste sense identified in 1909 by a Japanese scientist.
Though many sources alternately point to people in the United States or England as the first to use tomatoes in a ketchup, my personal choice is Colonel Joseph Vigo, a Sardinian who came as a soldier to Louisiana when it was a Spanish possession. As a love-apple-loving Sardinian, he certainly carried tomato seeds. Later, he traveled north to present-day Vincennes, Indiana, as a fur trader and was instrumental in funding the capture of that city by American forces during the Revolutionary War. It’s said he was first to create a sauce that combined beef stock and tomato sauce.
Fifty years later, there was scarcely a cookbook published in the United States that didn’t contain at least a few recipes for tomato ketchup. In the frontier days, when every home had a vegetable garden, preserving excess tomatoes in the form of ketchup was a good way to make sure none went to waste. After the Civil War, when commercial canning and bottling became widespread, the majority of Americans began buying their ketchup in stores. By the end of the century no other condiment came close.
Meanwhile, the oft-maligned potato was still considered poor-folk food. As the 19th century progressed, it joined chestnuts as the street food of choice. Vendors in England, France, Belgium, and elsewhere in Europe set up stands where a baked or boiled potato could be had for one or two pennies. By the end of the century, vendors had created portable fryers and were deep-frying potatoes in horse or beef fat.
Fries didn’t make the leap across the pond until the 1920s and ’30s. Americans were well-acquainted with fried potatoes (according to a number of European visitors, fried food made up the majority of the American diet), but the fry as we know it now took some time catching on.
There are a number of theories as to why Americans are the only people in the world to call them french fries. My opinion is that American soldiers were introduced to this street food during World War I while serving in Belgium. Since the inhabitants largely spoke French (and since most doughboys probably didn’t know the difference between Belgium and Botswana), they labeled the fries accordingly.
With the rise of car culture between the wars, hamburger joints popped up on highways all over the United States. Still, the emphasis was on the burger, not the fries. With good reason: limp, greasy, burnt, half-raw, insipid — they sucked.
All this changed in the ’50s and ’60s, when Roy Kroc, the first CEO of McDonald’s, recognized that it would be the perfect fry, not the perfect burger, that would set his fledgling chain apart. In 1967, he combined forces with an Idaho potato entrepreneur named Jack Simplot, who came up with a process of pre-frying and then freezing to ensure a consistently golden fry. Another entrepreneur created a system that hurled potatoes at sharp steel blades at 117 feet per second, while a McDonald’s engineer designed a scoop that delivers the same fan of fries every time. The french fry was nearing commercial perfection.
The USDA estimates that Americans consume nearly 52 pounds of french fries per capita each year. In fact, of the more than 42 billion pounds of potatoes grown annually in the United States, one-third are made into fries. According to David Graulich’s The French Fry Companion, McDonald’s uses 7 percent (2.4 billion pounds) of all the potatoes harvested in the U.S. If laid end to end, the fries McDonald’s produces would circle the globe 497 times.
Ketchup has not done so badly itself in the 200 years since Señor Vigo mixed his first batch. Though salsa eclipsed ketchup in sales as early as 1990 (the former is also three to four times as expensive), tomato ketchup is found in 97 percent of U.S. households, and it is estimated that each man, woman, and child consumes at least four bottles per year.
And so, after 6,000 years and two separate journeys in which they changed political, economic, and culinary history, the two wild pariah plants from the foothills of the Andes are meeting again at the very moment you read this, as hundreds — if not thousands — of people simultaneously dip their golden fries into a little red puddle of ketchup.