French fries are probably not French, as the French Embassy was quick to point out during the whole “freedom fries” silliness. For the French, the things are quintessentially Belgian, and for the Belgians it’s downright heresy to imagine that anyone else could have conceived of their beloved national dish.
This, of course, raises the question of why Americans call them “French” fries. After all, no one else does: for the French they’re simply frites (fries), which is short for pommes frites (fried apples, actually), which is also what the Germans, surprisingly, call them in those quaint little accents of theirs, and which is itself short for pommes de terre frites (fried potatoes, keeping in mind that potatoes are actually called “earth apples” in French). You still with me here? Anyway, the Brits call them “chips,” not to be confused with “potato chips,” which they call “crisps.”
I’m sure you’re duly fascinated by now, but the whole point of this is to bring us back to Belgium, and the passion that Belgians have for fries (we shall heretofore refer to them simply as fries, to avoid any political overtones, and I can’t help but note that my beloved homeland has attained a frenzied level of inanity when fried potatoes can have political overtones). So what the hell was I saying? Ah, yes, we were discussing the Belgians and their fries (or frietjes, for the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium, where linguistic political overtones are rife).
You can’t swing a dead potato in Belgium without hitting a fries stand. These can be wagons, booths, vans, just about anything, really. They usually have one or two people inside frying up fries. I remember once driving from some tiny part of Luxembourg to some other tiny part of Luxembourg, which is a very tiny country, and in so doing crossing an even tinier finger of Belgium that sticks into Luxembourg. When we crossed the border (as evidenced by a tiny sign mentioning that we were now in Belgium), we immediately saw two fries stands. About five minutes later we crossed the border back into Luxembourg and saw no more.
Belgian fries are to McDonald’s fries as fries are to worms (remember that if you ever retake your SAT—it’s a rare but telling trick question), and the best place to sample them is Bruges, in the Markt Square.
It’s not really that the fries in Bruges are better than the fries anyplace else in the country, it’s simply that if you’re going to go to Belgium you really should go to Bruges, and if you go to Bruges you’ll undoubtedly find yourself in Markt Square, staring up at the enormous belfry, in which case you may as well sample the fries from one of the two little green stands there.
Stands that sell fries are, as I just pointed out, legion in Belgium, and these two hold what may be the most sought-after location in the country, right in front of Bruges’s most visited attraction, in the city’s biggest open space. The stands are painted a dark green, the kind of green you see on fountains and poster pillars in Paris. (Come to think of it, that same green is also used on fences and little buildings in Parisian public parks, as well as on just about anything relating to the municipality in Paris. I never thought about that before. I wonder where that green came from.) The shacks are made of wood, and in either of them you’ll find two people taking orders from the vast crowd in front, while simultaneously frying up a storm. The stands also have vestigial wheels, which are far too small and frail to support the shacks themselves and are apparently purely for show.
The stands have a surprisingly large menu, considering that they are designed to sell only fries. Upon examination, though, it becomes evident that over half of the menu space is taken up with the choice of sauces.
Americans tend to put ketchup on fries, and indeed ketchup is available. In Belgium, though, the standard thing to put on fries is a creamy type of mayonnaise. However, when Belgians want some variety in their lives they go out on a limb and put all kinds of funky things on fries, so many different funky things that the menu of a simple fry shack inevitably sports a hefty list of sauces, such as …
- Gele Bickysaus
… and I’ve left out both the more mundane and the difficult-to-spell (i.e., those sauces with such a wealth of Flemish consonants, sprinkled with o’s and u’s, that I don’t trust my hastily scribbled notes and fear that if I guess at what I’ve written I’ll bring down upon myself a torrent of hate mail from irate Flemish/Dutch speakers who already don’t like me because of my comments about their language in the Amsterdam column).
And that’s not all, because the two stands sell more than just fried potatoes. They also serve hot dogs and bratwurst. Unfortunately, these too are deep-fried. I only discovered this when I ordered a bratwurst (to tell the truth, I don’t really like fries all that much) and found, to my profound disappointment, that it was crispy and slick. I then understood why no other patrons were walking away from the fry stands with anything else but neat little plastic containers of fries, covered with samurai sauce or whatever.
Once you have your little plastic container of fries, you can walk around Bruges like a real Belgian and feast your eyes on one of the most beautiful little cities in Northern Europe. Look up Bruges to get a handle on all the sites, but make sure you don’t miss the spot where the Rozenhoedkaai becomes the Braambergstraat. (Incidentally, it’s always best to try to pronounce Flemish names with a mouth full of fries—helps the pronunciation.) Here, you have a fantastic perspective on a big central canal that makes a sharp turn, with medieval houses hovering over it and a big old willow tree apparently growing out of the canal, its long branches brushing the dark water. Splendid.
You should also take a carriage ride in Bruges. I agree, carriage rides are often pretty lame and you feel kind of silly, but if you’re ever going to take one, then you should take one in Bruges. For one thing, the Flemish are notoriously tidy, as is evident in the overall level of cleanliness in the city, and the carriages in Bruges are without a doubt the neatest, cleanest, shiniest carriages this side of Versailles. They even have impeccable poop chutes. For those of you who are unfamiliar with poop chutes, these are leather devices one attaches to the butt of a horse. The horse poops into them and the poop slides down into a container, avoiding horseshit-strewn streets (such as the one on which I live, but that’s another matter). The carriages in New York also have these devices, which, of course, accounts for the pristine nature of Manhattan streets, but in New York they live up (or down) to the hygienic expectations one might have for equipment such as this, whereas in Bruges they’re actually beautiful. Can you imagine just how fastidious a culture has to be to boast impeccable equine poop chutes?
So there you have it: fried potatoes, beautiful canals, and shiny black poop chutes. If that doesn’t get you to Bruges, I don’t know what will.