Excerpted from Fries!: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Favorite Food by Blake Lingle, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Where you find cooking, you find fries. Most fries are initially cooked in factories—McCain Foods (the largest producer of frozen fries worldwide) makes one in every three fries around the globe—and then cooked again in homes, restaurants, or friteries. Fresh, hand-cut fries are made in all those places too, but those fries are less common. Regardless, you won’t have to slog into the middle of the Amazon to see where fries are grown. You’ll just have to visit your neighborhood restaurant—or scale the barbed-wire fence at your nearest fry factory.
J.R. Simplot—a fellow Idahoan whose ubiquitous presence in my hometown, Boise, has convinced me that I’ve seen or hugged or smelled him on many occasions, though no such occasions can be substantiated by reality—deserves credit for founding the eponymous J.R. Simplot Company, which first invented the mass-produced fry. Two of Simplot’s top agribrainiacs, Ray Dunlap and Ray Keuneman, did the actual inventing in 1948. In 1953, the Rays developed a frying method that continuously purifies and circulates the oil, eliminating the need to fry taters in batches and thus streamlining mass production. It took another decade, however, before frozen fries got hot. Homemakers embraced them initially, but restaurants did not. Then J.R. met another Ray in 1965, Ray Kroc, and the fry universe as we knew it changed forever. Kroc was an Illinois businessman who had (allegedly somewhat unethically) acquired the McDonald’s restaurant chain from its founding brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, a few years prior. Kroc wanted to conquer the fast-food world. Simplot wanted to conquer the fry world. And together they conquered both. McDonald’s became and remains the most supersized fast-food operation, and the largest buyer of potatoes, in the world. Simplot became (yet no longer remains) the most supersized frozen fry operation in the world (that crown now belongs to McCain Foods).
Mass-produced frozen fries are now welcomed worldwide, largely for three reasons: consistency, ease of use, and cost. Consistency is ensured by plucking potatoes during peak season (fall, in most of the United States) and then properly storing them in a dark (no sunlight), damp (95 percent humidity), and cool (45 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit) facility—thus preventing entropy, that cruel vixen, from getting her witchlike hands on them—before a twenty-step process happens (more details on that below).
This process ensures that only the best and brightest taters are fashioned into fries. Bad taters—small, bruised, defective, ugly, stupid, temperamental, judgmental—are eliminated or reconstituted into other products. And somewhere during this process, some—not all, mind you—mass-produced fries are also coated with dextrin, sugar, breading, artificial flavors, and/or other chemicals that require a chemistry degree to enunciate, in order to achieve ideal color and crispiness. They’re mechanically made wonders: perfect crispy esculents that even novice cooks can prepare. Just remove them from the bag and bake or fry. Easy-peasy. And cheap. Frozen, mass-produced fries cost approximately $1.50 less per pound for peeled taters and $0.50 for skin-on taters than freshly prepared fries when factoring in the costs of goods (potatoes, oil, and labor) and yield. That’s a significant savings.
Given the manufacturing prowess required to produce frozen fries, a virtual oligopoly exists. Three major manufacturers account for 80 percent or more of the American market: McCain Foods, the J.R. Simplot Company, and Lamb Weston (owned by ConAgra Foods). And these gigantic corporations are constantly taking bites out of one another’s business. A few farthings per pound is often the difference between winning a contract or not; those farthings add up quickly when contracts are for millions and millions of pounds. Together, these companies have helped create the most popular fast-food item in America.
Unfortunately, mass-produced fries have contributed to bad agricultural practices, expanding in proportion to their popularity, which farmers often embrace to remain competitive. Proper crop rotation gets replaced by continuous planting of single-crop fields. Manual by mechanical. Small by massive. Organic by chemical. Natural by genetically modified. These practices create a vicious cycle of dependency. Farmers rely on biotech companies and agribusinesses for the seeds to plant and the chemicals to spray to increase yields and decrease prices. Agribusinesses want cheap taters so they can sell cheap fries. Yet less than 2 percent of the price of a mass-produced fry returns to the farmer, which has driven many farmers, especially the small guys, out of business; Idaho alone has lost over half its potato farmers in the past three decades.
It’s easy and obvious to blame big, ugly agribusinesses for the demise of the small, idyllic farm. Agribusinesses and biotech companies are broad-side-of-the-barn targets. The economics major, free-market proselytizer, and businessperson in me, in contrast, wants to blame consumers. Econ 101 teaches us that consumers drive commodity prices, right? Supply and demand—if the consumers want cheap fries, then golly gee goshdarnit, they’ll get cheap fries. Retailers, restaurants, wholesalers, importers, brokers, manufacturers—the entire vertical supply chain—can only respond to their whimsy. Toss in government subsidies—direct subsidies, crop insurance, conservation subsidies, marketing loans, disaster aid, trade barriers, commodity price supports, production controls, et cetera—and the influence of a plethora of commodity interest groups, and the blame gets even more difficult to assign. Basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply; chicken-versus-egg economic principles seem more appropriate.
Until all the links in the industrial food chain, from businesses to consumers to the government, change their practices, small farmers remain at risk. The good news for small farmers and their supporters, however, is that things are indeed changing. The number of small farms rose between 2002 and 2007 for the first time since the Great Depression. That’s mostly attributable to the local and organic food movements. The U.S. organic market is expected to exceed a 14 percent compound annual growth rate until 2018. Despite these gains, as of the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture (the most recent on record), small farms (those with less than $250,000 in annual sales) account for less than 12 percent of total agriculture production, and organic farms account for less than 1 percent. In my corner of the forest, the Northwest—contrary to popular belief, Idaho is in the Northwest, not the Midwest—more and more restaurants are supporting local, organic, and small farmers, in response to customer demand. Agribusinesses aren’t, of course, blind to the trend. Lamb Weston now has an entire line, Alexia, of organic, trans fat-free, and GMO-free fries.
Small farms must tow uphill both ways to compete with supersized farms. While I’m tempted to make a quasi-intelligible economic argument about why a large number of small farms is better for the economy than a small number of large farms, I’ve digressed enough.
I do feel, however, that a place exists in the freezer for mass-produced fries. I’d just like to see those fries cleaned up a bit. No chemicals and other crap. Just potatoes. Pure and simple. Unadulterated frozen food can taste as good and be as healthy as fresh food; ultimately, quality dictates the taste and nutrients. While I still may not buy mass-produced fries at restaurants—I prefer hands, not machines, making my food—if I ever find myself stranded on a desert island with nothing but frozen fries, peanut oil, and a solar-powered fryer, I don’t think I’d starve myself. At least not for more than a few days.