Antoine-Auguste Parmentier (1737-1813) was a pharmacist who convinced the French that potatoes were edible.Apparently he learned this while being held prisoner by the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War, where all they had to eat were potatoes, which in France were formerly only fed to pigs. Talk about a silver lining!
The French government had actually banned the cultivation of potatoes in the 18th century because they thought they were poisonous or caused leprosy, so it took Parmentier awhile to convince everyone otherwise, even after they were declared edible in 1772. He was quite a clever chap when it came to publicity stunts, offering potato flowers as a gift to King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and served potato dishes — potatoes Parmentier! — at dinners for influential guests like Benjamin Franklin (here are some historic recipes)
Thanks to famine, failed harvests and military sieges during the French Revolutionary Wars, the population finally resorted to eating potatoes to survive, and soon thereafter the French Fry was born.
Just kidding. It took a few more years before the French would think of frying them. Supposedly Thomas Jefferson learned about this dish while living in France and brought it back to the US. But according to many historians, French fries are actually…wait for it…NOT French! They came from Belgium. But American GI’s in Europe during WWI mistook the French-speaking Belgians selling fries (with mayonnaise, I’m sure) for French, and took these “French Fries” back to the US with them. The French and Belgians have long disputed who is the real founder of fries. Although I think this might be one argument the French will happily let the Belgians win. I’ve heard my French friends refer to cars with Belgian plates as “Frite-Mobiles”.
But I digress, back to Parmentier. Much less exciting, but probably important to mention, is that he was also responsible for the first mandatory smallpox shots in France under Napoléon as Minister of Health, and also figured out how to extract sugar from beets. His research helped improve breadmaking, and he even founded a bakery school. He was also one of the first scientists to study refrigeration methods for preserving meat. Remember this was before everyone had big Sub-Zeros in their kitchens.
I’ve always liked Parmentier’s metro station with the funny tractor seats and the statue of Parmentier handing a potato to a grateful peasant. I was walking with tour clients through Père Lachaise last week when one of them remarked the pretty flowers surrounding one tomb. We approached to take photos, when I noticed what looked like rocks atop the tomb (see photo above). But no, they were shriveled potatoes. “Wait a minute…” I said, looking around the back for the name. Sure enough, we had found Parmentier’s sarcophagus. And who, I wonder, were these fans of the long-dead physicist who brought potatoes to Père Lachaise in tribute?
Finally, if you don’t want to sound like a tourist when you order fries in Paris, don’t ask for “Pommes-frites”. The French just call them “frites”. And they are good…