Why Thomas Jefferson Is Credited With Bringing French Fries To The U.S.

To say Thomas Jefferson was an important figure in U.S. history would be putting it mildly. Besides being elected as the nation's third president, Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and brokered the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring land for 13 future states for 3 cents an acre. In between these two achievements, Jefferson did another thing that has had an enduring impact: He introduced the country to french fries.

Today, Americans on average eat 30 pounds of French fries a year — many as a salty fast-food side dish (via The Daily Meal). Jefferson could have never predicted the growth in popularity of the item, first served in the U.S. by the founding father in 1802 (via The Daily Meal).

French fries are the great equalizer today, enjoyed by almost everyone (a large order of fries at McDonald's will set you back less than $2.) But in the late 18th century, before Jefferson was president and while he served as a diplomat in France, the french fry was practically haute cuisine. He and his contemporaries referred to fries as pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches, which is French for "potatoes deep fried while raw, in small cuttings" (via National Geographic). One of Jefferson's slaves, James Hemings, likely picked up the recipe while training to be a chef at a country estate where French kings would drop by for lunch (via Journal of the American Revolution.)

Are french fries really French?

Jefferson wouldn't recognize the modern french fry — unless he came across an order of curly fries. As the Journal of the American Revolution has it, the dish that likely was on the menu when he entertained guests at the president's house ("White House" hadn't caught on quite yet) involved potatoes cut in quarter-inch slices or "in shavings round and round, as you would peal a lemon," as described in a Monticello cookbook written late in Jefferson's life.

One of the nation's founding fathers may have been the first to serve french fries in the U.S., but another century had to go by before the dish really started to catch on. In 1904, the french fry was featured at what used to be the ultimate site for making things viral — the World's Fair, held that year in St. Louis (via French Fry History). The french fry historian (and former McDonald's PR guy) responsible for French Fry History adds that fries really took off in the U.S. after soldiers serving in France and Belgium during World War I returned home with a taste for them. One of those two countries, incidentally, likely deserves the credit for "inventing" the french fry.