I had no idea frying potatoes was such a contentious proposition.
Take your basic fried potato. Well, no, don’t. There IS no basic fried potato. To some people a fried potato is a bulky object, made up of a quarter of the potato, while other people snub these in favor of thinner slicing. These thin sliced potatoes are sneered at as “potato chips” by people who prefer what restaurants prefer to call “country fries” or even “wedge fries”. My parents’ marriage nearly went to pieces at a very early stage because one of them was used to bulky fries and one to thin ones. (And the potato chip as experienced commercially was invented because a chef was infuriated by a customer’s demand for thinner fried potatoes. He sliced ‘em so thin he figured nobody would eat such things, the stunned customer realized the result was fun to eat, and an industry was born.)
Maybe you think we’re on safer ground with French fries. Or are you old enough to remember when they were Freedom fries? This is merely the tip of the iceberg (no lettuce allowed in today’s blog: only good, healthy fried food permitted.) Do you like THIN fries or THICK ones? Crinkled or straight-cut? Waffle fries? Curly fries? Would you put Tater Tots in this category, or do they belong in their own, singular glory, along with their cousins, the tater Babies and Smiley Fries? (This last is basically a pureed potato pressed into a smiley face design and then deep fried.) Or are Tater Tots a bite-sized version of hash browns?
WHICH brings us to today’s burning (or at least frying) question. I do love hash browns. And I absolutely hate has browns. Like my parents and their fried potatoes, I prefer hash browns the way by parents made them. (On retirement, my father took over much of the cooking, and took my mother’s really excellent has browns and turned them into something exalted and amazing. I will take either recipe, thank you, with just about anything.)
See, some hash browns are cubed, some are grated, some are pureed. Some are fried crisp, while others come out limp and soggy. (I know, my preferences are showing here. I can only assure you that there are people who adore soggy hash browns and seem completely lucid otherwise.) Some chefs insist that they be prepared with only potatoes, while other people add onions, or corn, or peppers. What, exactly, ARE hash browns, and why can’t I find decent ones in a restaurant?
The Interwebs, which I assume are all stealing from Wikipedia, trace the dish back to the 1887 cookbook of Maria Parloa, who included a recipe for “hashed and browned potatoes”, which was a way of using up leftover boiled potatoes by chopping them up, frying them, and folding them like an omelet. (Hence the listing of this dish as Hashed Browns by people who are sticklers for history.) I have not seen what this is supposed to look like when done, and you can skip it, for me. Only hash browns made with raw potatoes need apply. They then go on to explain how hash browns made their way into diners, and then were picked up by fast food joints in the 1980s, almost invariably, at first, for breakfast. They discuss the hash brown squares or triangles or pennies available in the frozen food cases, and finish with non-frozen but preserved varieties available for carrying on hikes. (Real jikers, I have been informed by experts, always pack a frying pan.)
And there they pretty much leave it. There has to be more to it than that. What about people who cube the potatoes? Is this an ethnic or regional variation? Are the graters mostly Midwestern, and the soggy hash brown people from the south, where sausage gravy will probably be poured over them anyway, or am I just coming up with that out of my own prejudices? (I have had soggy hash browns with sausage gravy, and these are absolutely excellent. I just refuse to call ‘em “hash browns”.) Are people who take squares of chopped potatoes out of the freezer and make them in a toaster oven happy with their “hash browns” or do they, deep down, feel they’re missing something? (I do not consider Tater Tots, whatever form they take, to be hash browns either, though they are also excellent in their own way.)
Obviously, more research is needed, on the Interwebs AND at the table. In the meantime, enjoy your potatoes in whatever form they come, and remember the special note Wikipedia throws in—a very important distinction—that “hash brownies” are an entirely different kettle of cuisine.