In her novel “Villette,” Charlotte Bronte writes that “happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
I beg to differ. Happiness, my kind of culinary happiness anyway, is most certainly a potato. If I really had to, I think I could give up wine or chocolate- but never potatoes.
The potato is the most flexible of foods. You can make it sweet (in bread or doughnuts) or savory (in stews or fishcakes). Bake it, mash it or boil it. Pair it with fish or fowl, meat or milk. There’s probably no single way I wouldn’t eat a potato, but my hands-down favorite way is fried.
There’s just something about the combination of fat and potato that, to me, attains a sort of perfection. A good fried potato is crisp, almost caramelized on the outside, and tender, not mushy, inside. It crunches, as potato chips do. It isn’t greasy, but rather possesses nuances of the fat in which it is fried. In his fascinating book, “The Botany of Desire,” author Michael Pollan reports that scientists are working on a “potato genetically modified to absorb less fat when fried.” I understand the health concerns that prompt such research, but I fear the culinary results. Fat absorption is key for a fried potato.
I’ve eaten small cubes of potatoes browned in duck fat in Paris, thinly sliced potatoes deep fried in olive oil in a stove-top kettle in southern Italy. For breakfast in my student residence hall at the University of Glasgow in the 1980s, I devoured golden tattie scones, a glorious combination of potatoes and flour made into a simple dough, rolled thin, cut into triangles and fried.
But my weakness has always been french fries. Whether it was lunch at the Burger King on Merritt Boulevard after an afternoon of shopping with my grandmother at Eastpoint Mall or a fancier dinner at the Brentwood Inn, my meals out, as a child, always revolved around french fries. In fact, sometimes my meal was a plate of french fries. My parents used to be embarrassed by this. But when I started ordering the petit filet mignon, medium rare, “just like Daddy,” they began to long for my strictly potato days.
The fried potato fetish runs through my family. When eating my mother’s potato pancakes, my father and uncle declare her modest kitchen to be a paradise on Earth. Mom also excels in the nifty hausfrau’s trick of transforming leftover mashed potatoes into another animal entirely by adding an egg, a little chopped onion and parsley, forming the spuds into cakes and browning them in butter.
I’ve done this, too, but my potato cakes never taste as good as my mother’s. Neither do my homemade, deep-fried french fries taste as good as a restaurant’s (though I do pretty well with skillet fried potatoes). I suspect restaurants have larger fryers with more reliable thermostats (a Fry Daddy has no thermostat at all), and I’ve heard that the best fries are actually fried twice. Unfortunately, one dip in bubbling fat is more than enough to smoke up my small kitchen.
Let it not be said that french fries can’t be a high-class indulgence. Around town, Linwood’s and Petit Louis serve homemade shoestrings in bistro-style paper cones. And the garlic rosemary fries at Brewer’s Art beg for the restaurant’s hand-crafted ales.
Some of the best fries I’ve ever had are served with steak in the classic steak frites combination at Kiki’s Bistro in Chicago. Piled high over the steak with its bull’s-eye of herby butter melting on top are thin shards of potatoes that crackle as you bite into them. If I am given the opportunity to choose my final meal (a good thing or a bad thing, I wonder), Kiki’s steak frites would be my choice, hands down.
Yet my favorite memory of french fries is actually of fries I’ve never eaten. It comes from a French friend who tells the story of a party at her parents’ house when she was a child. It was late, past midnight; the party had been in full swing for hours with more than a little wine consumed. Nearly all the neighbors in her small town were there. Suddenly, someone had the idea that they should make frites. Without protest about the hour or the work involved, my friend’s stepmother got out the kettle and began slicing potatoes. Potatoes, oil, wine and friends. Could there be a better combination?