My wife, son, and I were having dinner together last week. Nothing special. Just a quick Sunday night supper of burgers and fries. Halfway through the meal, I said, “I love french fries.” It was an out-of-the-blue, random statement, and my wife and son stared blankly at me.

My son, who eats much cleaner and healthier than I do, replied, “French fries are universal.”

That’s true. Whether you are eating chips In England, frites in France, or patata in Italy or Spain, almost every country in the Western World fries potatoes in some form or fashion.

It reminds me of the Ella Brennan quote, “You know why kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good.” The same goes for french fries.

I don’t know if I have ever met anyone who doesn’t like french fries. French fries are one of those foods – along with doughnuts – that make me happy (though I don’t feel as miserable and weighed down after eating fries as I do after eating doughnuts). If there were one specific food group I could track that I ate when I was 4-years-old and that I continue to eat today – almost in the same exact manner, with the same exact accompaniments, and almost in the exact same amounts (if not more) – it would be french fries.

Potatoes and bread are my dietary downfall. I hope I never have to give up either, but if someone was holding a gun to my head forcing me to give up either fries or bread, for the rest of my life, the winner might be fries (and that’s coming from someone who has a 58-year love affair with bread).

My earliest memories of french fries come from a restaurant called the Frostop in my hometown of Hattiesburg. My friend Stan and I used to eat there every day after kindergarten with our mothers. I would order a small hamburger and a large order of fries. I probably never finished the hamburger. I would have never left a french fry.

Some of the fondest french fry memories from my youth come from the Hattiesburg Country Club. My mom was not a member of the Hattiesburg Country Club, though my grandmother was. I was able to go out there on guest day or occasionally when accompanied by a friend. There was a giant swimming pool and a short-order walk-up counter-service area they called the teen room.

There was something about coming out of the hot summer Mississippi heat, dripping wet, smelling of chlorine, and walking into that air-conditioned teen room that holds fond memories for me. The french fries were excellent.

I’m sure there was nothing fancy about the product. They were probably just typical frozen fries from a large supplier. But when all of those factors came together, in that environment, they were memorable – so much so that I am writing about them 50 years later.

That teen room was probably the only place I squirted ketchup on top of fries in a basket. There are two schools of thought here. Dip the fry in ketchup or squirt the ketchup all over the fries. Believe it, or not, there is a difference in the flavor profile of the final product. I dip these days. Squirting is too messy.

There have been several restaurants over the years that have done a great job with french fries. The most memorable meal I have ever eaten in this country that involved french fries was in Aspen, Colorado, at a restaurant called Ajax at the base of the ski lift. It was in the early- to mid-1990s and it was the first place I ever ate truffle fries.

They took fresh-cut potatoes, fried them and drizzled them with truffle oil, then sprinkled salt and pepper and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top. That is a very common application these days. In the early 1990s, no one was doing that to my knowledge. We have served truffle fries at one of our restaurants over the past 10 years and they have been a huge hit.

Some of the best fries I’ve eaten in my life have been in Europe. When I am leading tours in Italy, I stick to Italian food – 100% – with my guests. Though on my off days, I sometimes deviate. Two years ago, I was three weeks into a Tuscany stay and was waiting on the fourth group to arrive. My friend Marina took me to a hamburger joint called Vinile in the middle of nowhere, outside of the town of San Casciano in the Tuscan countryside. The burger was good but the fries were outstanding. We ate on a table under large hardwoods and listened to American rock ‘n roll. It was a nice temporary respite before my next group arrived the following day.

Fried potatoes are plentiful in Spain and Greece, so much so, that when I have visited those countries – and this is coming from someone whose primary weakness is fried potatoes – I have always reached a point where I couldn’t eat another fried potato.

Leonardo DaVinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I like to think he was sitting in front of a plate of fried potatoes when he made that statement.

Onward.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Homemade French Fries at robertstjohn.com.

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