Editor's Note 11/15/18: We're bringing back this love letter to frites in celebration of Home Frite serving their hand-cut Belgian fries at Smorgasburg x VICE Night Markets through the end of the year.
Two months after I moved to the Netherlands, people were still asking the same question: What is it you miss the most from Belgium?
It's definitely not our artisanal, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate or four days at Tomorrowland. It's the fries alone—those crunchy pieces of golden happiness—served in a cone or take-out box and topped with a dollop of mayonnaise
I miss fries more than I miss my family. That doesn't make me a monster; it makes me Belgian. And I'm sure this is the case for almost every one of my compatriots. If anyone dared to claim that fries are actually French, we would probably make mashed potatoes out of their face with our fists. France can keep its contribution to society—French kissing—but its people had better keep their hands off our national deep-fried treasure.
Belgium is small yet divided. Its regions hardly speak to one another. In Flanders, for example, there's a silent war going on between the 'braggarts' of East and the 'farmers' of West, and the German-speaking people are being ignored altogether. But no matter how fragmented our country might be, there's one thing that connects us: We can't live without fries. It's our national pride, and despite the fact that half of Belgians are overweight, it remains our only forgivable sin.
We proved that to the world five years ago, when our government closed up shop for 533 days. To protest the political stalemate, my people found it logical to organize a fry revolution. Almost 8,000 students took to the streets dressed in the colors of the Belgian flag as they showed their frustration, indignation, and anger by collectively eating shitloads of fries.
Aside from our national symbol, though, another 200 fry-eating students chose to express their own outrage by taking off their clothes, because politics had been 'undressing them for years'—a Flemish expression for making a fool out of someone.
Nothing says unity like a naked Belgian on fries.
Walk down almost any Belgian street and you'll discover that they're covered with frietkots: small sheds on wheels, huts, tiny chalets, or a restaurants of not much more than four square meters, preferably parked on the street corner. In a traditional frietkot, simplicity is a virtue. The space is usually too small to sit comfortably in; customers have to stand deliciously and wonderfully close to each other as they queue. At busy times, they have to scream their order to the fry master, who possesses the cultural status of a national hero.
Ghent's Late Julien of frietkot De Gouden Saté (known locally as 'at Julien') was one of those legendary fry heroes who could remember the sickest, most complicated orders belted out by a whole row of drunks, and then serve them in a jiff. After his death—which upset just about the whole city—the shop named its most famous dish of fries after him. Julientje is the king of fries and the culinary cocaine of Belgian students: a plastic box stacked with fries, saté barbecue spices, stewed meat, mayonnaise, deep fried onions, and a viandelle that's been cut into pieces and fried. Bow down for this one.
If you think you know what fries are all about but you've never been to Belgium, you've got a lot to learn. But even if you decide to do more than just a drive through on the way to some other holiday destination (which is what most people do), stop at a frietkot and choose a sauce you've never heard of: bicky, tartar, andalouse, or samurai. Order a piece of meat you've never seen before: bear leg (not actually a bear leg), hunters sausage, a brochette of boulette and spicy onion, or a bicky crispy cheeseburger (a flattened patty that tastes like frikandel) with deep-fried onion, pickles, cheese, and three different sauces on a grilled bun. It's so popular that it became the new Lay's potato chip flavor.
Belgians' culinary knowledge reaches far beyond the fried potato, but 'shoving in some fries', as we call it, is one of our favorite hobbies. It's about much more than just satisfying our cravings. The scent and the soothing sound of fries being shaken out into containers conjures warm memories: going to a frietkot with the family on Fridays, bringing grandma a 'small one with mayo', getting fried on spliffs with friends in the park while snacking on fries. These are the traditions that make us think of childhood happiness, safety, and coziness.
And of course: being drunk.
Partygoers love their Belgian gold, so a frietkot is the best spot to have nonsense conversations with strangers. You're just as likely to get into a conversation with an older woman wearing a miniskirt as you are to get a beating from a shitfaced guy in a neat suit.
Fries are the reason why Belgians don't need Tinder as badly as other countries do. Late in the evening—or early in the morning—a frietkot becomes an inhibition-free zone, where you can easily bump into your future lover(s). Standing insanely close to each other in the damp of freshly fried fries and meat forges a bond. After 15 minutes of chewing the fat with a stranger, you grab your order and go outside to sit on the pavement with him/her. Eating junk food together is charming, and if that cute guy asks you if he can dip his fries in your sauce, no one will think it odd.
Thankfully, since I've relocated to Amsterdam, I've discovered one good fry shack (on Heiligenweg Street, of course). They call themselves a Flemish fry-place, and I admit, the fries smell as good as they taste. Then again, they don't sell any meat, the price is triple what it is back home, the fry master avoids all eye contact, and the atmosphere sucks major balls.
Then again, maybe I'm just a Belgian fries snob.
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