Wander through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery (and past its most famous resident, Jim Morrison), and you may encounter a tomb covered with potatoes inscribed in Sharpie: “ Merci pour les frites!” Translation: Thanks for the fries!
The tomb is that of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, and despite the messages, he was not the inventor of the French fry. Parmentier was, however, instrumental in making potatoes the essential part of the French diet they are today. While today, potatoes feature heavily in Western European cuisine, from French fries (which are actually Belgian) to Spanish tortillas and patatas bravas to the very-French puree de pommes de terre (the late, great Joël Robuchon’s version of which were a whopping 40 percent butter), potatoes didn’t actually enter into the European diet until the Spanish arrived in southern Peru in the 1530s. Adopted first by the Spanish and then by the British, the potato was soon being consumed by most Europeans, particularly in times of famine.
In France, however, things were a bit more dire for the humble 'tater. While the French did grow potatoes as pig food, the vegetable never attained the popularity it did across the border or across the pond. The French crown even outlawed potatoes for over 20 years in the 18th century, as they were rumored to lead to leprosy or even the plague. Coupled with the plant’s botanical link to poisonous belladonna, which had made some skeptical from the very beginning of the potato’s introduction to Europe, these rumors kept potatoes from becoming popular in France—even among the starving poor.
Enter Parmentier, a pharmacist by training who, lacking the funds to open his own pharmacy, decided to lend his skills to a career in the French military. During the Seven Years’ War, Parmentier was captured and imprisoned in Prussia, where he discovered the humble potato, already a staple of the Prussian diet that had become even more popular following a block on French grain imports. He was served potato mush regularly in prison, and found it not only to be quite tasty but (more importantly) not to give him leprosy or the plague.
Upon his release and return to France, Parmentier set out to spread the word about potatoes. The French, however, are famously opposed to change. The Eiffel Tower, now the beacon of the capital city, was criticized as an eyesore for years, and the jury is still out on the famous Louvre pyramid. The potato, which most believed was not only bad for one’s health but bad for agriculture, sapping nutrients from the soil, would need a major marketing makeover to garner interest from the French.
So Parmentier had to get creative.
He offered Queen Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI bouquets of potato blossoms, which the former wore in her hair and the latter in his buttonhole. The King also agreed to allow Parmentier to plant up a field of potatoes not far from Paris. After the potatoes were planted, Parmentier hired soldiers to stand guard around the patch all day, giving them the evenings off. He would then encourage (and possibly even hire) the local poor to “steal” potatoes in the dead of night, contributing to their rise in popularity. Simultaneously, Parmentier was working his way through the infamous French bureaucracy to repair the potato’s reputation.
In 1771, Parmentier won a contest launched by the Académe de Besançon to find a food that could feed the poor in times of famine, and in 1772, the potato was officially declared edible by the Paris Faculty of Medicine. The potato would go on to help the French survive widespread scarcity in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789.
But the potato didn’t just become popular among the poor. In 1783, Parmentier hosted a dinner party boasting a menu of 20 distinct potato-based dishes. As Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were both in attendance, some attribute this dinner as the means by which French fries, which were first served at the White House by Jefferson, arrived in the United States.
Parmentier’s career also led to the increased popularity of foods like chestnut and corn in France, but it’s the potato with which he’s most associated. In fact, for several years, folks tried to get the potato, which the French call pomme de terre or "earth apple," to be named after him.
While this honor was not to be, several potato-heavy French dishes include references to him, including hachis Parmentier, a dish similar to cottage pie, and pommes Parmentier, a dish of fried potato cubes.
And of course, if you pay your respects at Père Lachaise Cemetery, you’ll find yet another potato patch surrounding his grave (though these potatoes are perhaps best left uneaten).