By James Coulson / Japan News Staff WriterFries! An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Favorite Food
By Blake Lingle
Princeton Architectural Press, 143pp
I scoffed at the idea of reviewing a book about fries. Not because I have a dislike of fast food, or that I’m British and refuse to adopt the global-standard word for what we resolutely still call “chips.”
Reading a book on fries, I thought, would aggravate the guilt I was feeling about my festive excesses over the recent holidays. In other words, drinking and eating lots of things with questionable health benefits. Fries included.
But on one cloudy-headed, late-December commute, I got stuck into “Fries! An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Favorite Food.”
In part, what transpired on the pages of “Fries!” was just what I expected from a book about things made with potatoes. There are ample facts about massive agribusinesses and the ethics of multinationals such as McCain Foods and McDonald’s. There is a rundown of the world’s spud varieties — everything from the Bintje cultivar to the Purple Peruvian gets a mention.
Did you know that one in three of the world’s fries are a McCain, or that taters are asexual clones? Me neither.
What I didn’t expect, though, was to find myself sniggering at almost every page.
Blake Lingle, the author of “Fries!,” has written an engaging, potato-lovingly charming book. His writing is funny, punny, informative and infectious, which renders a few pretty stunning pieces of conjecture forgivable.
“Like any good historian,” he says, “I will not let scant evidence prevent me from making a foregone conclusion.”
Lingle, by the way, is the cofounder of the Boise Fry Company, a restaurant chain headquartered in Idaho. Writing “Fries!” took him to Belgium, the Netherlands and the grave of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier — widely considered to have popularized potatoes in France.
“Fries!” takes the reader from the potato-cultivating efforts of the ancient Andeans to the “friet revolutie” — a curious climax to a French-Flemish political standoff in which students wearing nothing but their underwear handed out free beers and fries in 2011.
I also learned that Thomas Jefferson penned one of the earliest-known classic fry recipes, and that Winston Churchill made sure chips weren’t rationed in war-era Britain because that would’ve been too big a blow to morale.
Other highlights are an expert “fry-making” 101 section, a passage about the blurred lines between Portuguese and Japanese tempura, and a short but enlightening compendium of the world’s various “fry companions” (sauces, toppings and pairings).
But most of all, “Fries!” left me feeling rather less guilty about eating fries. This is because Lingle enthusiastically argues that fries really aren’t that bad for us, in moderation. A pertinent example might be Japan — first in the world in terms of per capita spending on take aways, but also first for longevity and fifth for overall health, according to Lingle.
Toward the end of “Fries!,” I even started to look upon fries as more than just a quick and dirty side dish — because in this increasingly divided world, this most universal of foods shows that there are things, however small, that we can all agree on.
They’re still called “chips,” though.
Maruzen price: ¥2,973 plus tax (as of Jan. 18)
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