It’s mid-June and I’m sitting in Dublin’s Guinness Open Gate Brewery, where beermakers experiment with different brews that go way beyond the traditional dark stout we all know and enjoy (if only, alas, on St. Patrick’s Day). The food at Guinness Open Gate Brewery is specifically designed to complement the beers, and before us is a lunch of traditional Irish food: blood sausage, beef and…chips (i.e., French fries).
The Irish “chip” differs slightly from the usual America French fry in that the potato is many times not cut into shafts. At their best, fried potatoes in Ireland, and at many places throughout United Kingdom, come in a pile of sometimes random pieces, circles, triangles, wedges, little parallelograms, rhomboids and so on. The various potato pieces render U.K. “fries” more delicious: the diverse angles of the cut spuds hit the tongue in different ways, creating a range of textures and flavors. In the best renditions, the outside of fresh-cut potatoes is bronzed with streaks of brown, with a little bit of potato skin here and there, crunchy and crisp outside, fluffy and pillow-y inside.
People rag on McDonald’s, bemoaning the quality and taste of fast food, but so many of those critics will make exception for McDonald’s fries, which they’ll eat without complaint…because everyone likes French fries. Frozen fries, however, will never compare with fresh-cut. Locally, we like the fresh-cut fries at places like Gene & Jude’s and Parky’s Hot Dogs.
The Irish sometimes up the flavor quotient of their chips by using what McDonald’s originally used in their fryers: beef tallow, which is basically beef fat. Frying potatoes in animal fat gives them an extra boost of flavor, and because beef tallow has a high smoke point, a fast, hot fry can give the potatoes a pleasingly light crust.
In the mid-eighties, I wrote the first McDonald’s ingredients brochure, published to counter demands of the Center for Science and the Public Interest who wanted McDonald’s to take the fat out of their food. McDonald’s eventually responded by using vegetable rather than animal oils to cook their potatoes. Their French fries have never tasted the same, and though I enjoy them, they are denied greatness because they’re no longer fried in beef tallow, the secret ingredient in all truly exceptional fries.
Potatoes, like chocolate and avocadoes, are another gift of native America to the world, originating somewhere around present-day Peru and Chile. Since the earliest days of the European conquest of the Americas, the world has made the potato its own, adding local spices, cooking with traditional techniques, making the potato part of its world in whatever part of the world the potato is growing, and it grows everywhere.
No culture has embraced potatoes as the Irish have, and they frequently seem to prepare them in the best possible way: fried.
Celebrate National French Fry Day on July 13 with (what else?) a bag of French fries.