Award-winning chef Toni Tipton-Martin of America’s Test Kitchen recounted the fascinating history of French fries, noting that it is believed that the potato first came to Europe via Spanish Conquistadors, and made its way to France where it was first dismissed as animal feed. It was only when a former prisoner saw the potential in potatoes that it gained popularity.
In France, for example, potatoes were considered food fit only for hogs. Enter Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. He was fed potatoes while he was imprisoned in Prussia, and despite the unpleasant circumstances, he liked potatoes and saw their potential as a cheap source of food. Thanks to him, potatoes became popular in French cooking. Baked, boiled, and fried.
Meanwhile, across the pond, a cook named James Hemmings, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, was sent to Paris to receive formal training in French cuisine. Hemmings returned to Virginia with a recipe for pommes frites that became the inspiration for modern-day French fries.
Hemings prepared a version of pommes frites for the menu at Monticello. And since Jefferson was considered a cultural trendsetter, from there, french fries became a popular menu item throughout America.
Here’s a video explaining how Hemmings prepared his meals.