French Fry Cups or Whatever

As our lives have become both more harried and more informal, table settings have become simpler. I don’t mean everyone is using paper plates, though I am sure many households use them more often than not. But there do seem to be fewer plates and bowls on the home table than a generation or so ago. Bread plates, pickle dishes, salt cellars, and sauce boats are not quite things of the past but neither are they part of our daily meals. Even we potters who love table settings probably set our tables with dinner plates and salad or soup bowls and a few serving dishes and leave it at that. After all, we have to clean up just like everyone else.

So I was intrigued when I saw French fries served in parchment paper cones in special metal and ceramic cups in the pages of a glossy food magazine, and then on the cover of – yes, believe it, a French fry cookbook – and again in another magazine, all within a few days. Fast food restaurants have been serving fries in individual paper bags or little cardboard cups forever. How classy to serve them in real dishes, specially made, on a finely set table! I was intrigued.

I decided to make some myself. I happily threw a bunch, somewhat larger than a generous mug with slightly curved sides and subtly outward turned lip, all matching. They fired nicely. They would, I thought, look lovely with golden fried potatoes held upright within their walls. The beauty of it — a bouquet of string potatoes!

But after making them, I wasn’t sure what to call these new pots. I had to call them something or no one would know that they were for fries. Google offers French fry cups, French fry holders and fry cups. I suppose fry cup is best, but it seems a bit inadequate. If we are asking cooks to serve a very humble and ubiquitous food in a special dish, that dish needs a special name.

And then there is the question of where the thing belongs on the table. To the right of the dinner plate? The left? I think the top center, which would make it convenient for the diner, but really I have no idea what Miss Manners would say. Has Miss Manners heard of a French fry cup, handmade by her local potter?

The parchment paper is an even more complicated matter. I love the stuff. Who doesn’t? It feels nice, works great for baking, and is absorbent.  It seems that everyone is using it these days. In fact, there is a whole cookbook devoted to parchment paper being published this fall. But you buy the paper in rolls.  One has to take out scissors and cut it into half circles to make those little cones that look so attractive in the Fry cups. Right. Just what the home cook wants to do after a week at the office or shop and guests at the door.

Oh, and now I understand why some Chinese restaurants have plastic food in their windows. If I had plastic French Fries, I could put them into my parchment paper lined hand-thrown cups cups and everyone would know what they are for. But I don’t have plastic French Fries and I am not sure they would look that great in my pots anyway. Real fries would look great, but they wouldn’t last long because I would eat them. And if I didn’t, they would get cold and soggy and look horrid and I would have to dump them into the compost heap.

A small sign will have to do. And I guess Fry Cup will be the name.

Conclusion: As classy as they look in magazines and on the covers of specialty cookbooks, I fear Americans will not embrace hand made fry cups. Oh, their tables would look tastefully look-at-me. Pretty. Very pretty. Guests would be dazzled. But if I have to explain what exactly these pots are for, and they have to buy one per person and cut parchment paper half-circles for each, well, no, they are not going to put fry cups on their wish list. Nice idea. Fun to imagine oneself doing. No takers.

So, I will likely end up with a party load of fry cups. I will bedazzle my guests. I have enough to feed a good crowd, each person with his or her own fry cup placed elegantly above his or her dinner plate. Oh, how impressive and lovely!

Except I don’t recall ever serving guests French fries.

I could forget the fries and call these new little pots, um,  – parfait cups! Yes, parfait cups. Or tumblers. Or, how about table vases, a little cluster of flowers at each place setting.

A True Champion of Clay Cookery Pots

“Most food,” bestselling cookbook author Paula Wolfert writes in the introduction to her newest book Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking “— and Mediterranean food in particular —tastes better cooked in clay.” Wolfert is fanatical in her devotion to using clay pots for cooking, and has spent years traveling the globe passionately collecting pots and meeting with potters. She uses clay cookware for baking, frying, stewing, roasting, steaming, and boiling.  Indeed she calls herself a “clay pot ‘junkie.’”

Of course, cooks have been using clay pots to prepare meals for thousands of years, and in many areas of the world, they are still the prevalent vessel, particularly earthenware. Wolfert uses traditional earthenware, plus stoneware and flameware in various shapes, “tall pots for cooking beans, soups, and stews; round earthenware vessels for cooking rice and sauces; deep-flaring-terra-cotta and glazed casseroles for dishes such as cassoulets and tians; shallow, round dishes for baking pies and gratins; stovetop skillets made of ceramic for cooking eggs and sautéing vegetables; shallow glazed rounds for oven baking custards and flans; and clay forms for baking bread.” I’d love to get a glimpse of her kitchen and her collection. There are photos of the pots throughout the book, though it is published by Wiley, known for its professional level cookbooks rather than for lavish design, so there aren’t nearly enough of them. You can see more photos on her Facebook page dedicated to cooking in clay pots.

Wolfert gives practical information on caring for clay pots (they are sturdy) and using them, with a good overview at the beginning of the book, followed by specifics with each recipe. Oh yes, the recipes — this is a cookbook after all.  Well, I am a vegetarian and there is a lot of meat in this book, so I gravitated to the section on vegetables and beans. Cassolo of Spinach and Artichokes. Yum.  Green Beans with Tomatoes and Garlic. Yum. And lots of potato recipes. The most interesting is Baby Creamer Potatoes Cooked in the Devil’s Pot or diable, “a potbellied unglazed earthenware pot traditionally used to cook potatoes or chestnuts.” The potatoes are cooked dry with sea salt. You shake the pot periodically but are forbidden to open the lid, or all is lost! I can’t wait to try this.

If you are a functional potter, Paula Wolfert is your best friend and advocate in the culinary arena. If you just like to cook and enjoy handmade pots, Wolfert will introduce you to possibilities beyond (and years older than) the stoneware casserole.

Happy Eating!