In Belgium, frites aren't small potatoes

Wed Jul 28, 2010 12:02pm EDT
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By Andrea Swalec

BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - Paul Ilegems, a retired professor of art history, has a vision of heaven. It involves a simple Belgian pommes frites stand where "human souls ascended eat their fries undisturbed."

It may be odd for a man accustomed to appreciating the beauty of art to wax poetic about something as mundane as frites, but to Ilegems, who has written four books about fries, including a volume of poetry, it is essential.

Fortunately the professor is in good company in Belgium, where fried potatoes -- how they are cut, twice fried, salted and served -- is a serious, some would say fanatical, business.

"Frites are something omnipresent in Belgian culture," says a rapt Ilegems, less beat poet than frites poet, when asked to put his finger on how important chips are to the nation.

There are many ways to measure Belgians' passion for fries, but here's one: there are more than 5,000 frites vendors in the country of 10 million people, which means there are 11 times as many stands per capita as there McDonald's per American.

Drive past an open Belgian frites stand at any time of the day or night, rain or shine, and there's a good chance a queue of people will be waiting patiently for their fix.

Belgians consume on average 75 kg (165 lbs) of fried potatoes per person each year, a third more than Americans, and the potato love doesn't stop there -- pommes frites are as fundamental to Belgium's cultural heritage as comic book hero Tintin and the country's famously strong monk-brewed beer.

"Frites are part of the folklore of Belgium," declares Peter Matagne, a doctor and regular patron of Frit-Flagey, a popular frites stand in Brussels that draws a determined crowd despite the owners' reputations for being brusque.   Continued...

<p>A employee prepares fries next to a large cone of fries at Frit-Flagey, a popular frites stand in Brussels July 28, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir</p>