To judge by the number of suitable implements in the marketplace, the ability to slice mechanically -- using some machine other than knife and hand -- must be a preoccupation of large segments of the cooking public. Or at least of the manufacturing public.
And it's not exclusively an American preoccupation, either. Most of these devices are manufactured abroad, mainly in western Europe.
There probably are dozens of machines that cut potatoes into french-fry shapes, for example, and none of them is of any interest at all until you have to produce french fries for 25. Or even for 10, or for four twice a week. Then you want the sleekest, fastest machine you can get your hands on. You want the Maserati of french fry cutters.
There may not be a Maserati, exactly, but there are lots of machines to try out.
The food processor people will tell you that the way to cut french fries is with their french-fry disk. It may be, but nonexperts in the art of food processor use (and that includes just about everybody who hasn't taken lessons) find that the machine is so fast and authoritative that they can't control it.
If you are one who feels that the food processor controls you instead of the other way around, consider the following machines, some of which slice and julienne as well as produce french fries:
Among my favorites is a Swiss-made slicer called the Moha. Its body is hard plastic, its blades are steel. The Moha is sturdily made, relatively inexpensive (about $25) and comes with three types of blades -- a french fry cutter, a julienne cutter, and a two-sided slicing blade for slicing thick and medium. The julienne blade reverses to be another, very thin slicing blade, which means you have the ability to slice in three thicknesses.
The Moha has no stabilizing bar to prop it steadily against the counter as you use it, unless you are comfortable holding it nearly horizontal. But it is so well balanced that it doesn't slip and slide. It comes with a plastic holder that you spike into the food you're slicing, then hold on to so that your fingers don't come inadvertently in contact with the blades.
The french fry cutter will produce fries about 5/16 of an inch square -- a small french fry, in other words. The slicing blades are all fairly thin, with the thinnest producing a paper-thin slice -- suitable for making chip-thin slices of potatoes, for example. You can also use the slicing blade to shred cabbage for cole slaw.
The Moha is the closest implement there is to that queen of kitchen equipment, the mandoline. The mandoline, present in every fancy professional kitchen and in many that are not so fancy, is all steel and the most versatile -- and most expensive by far -- of all mechanical slicers. It's the kind of thing you buy after you've got all your pots and pans and knives -- and after you've decided that cooking is something you love to do.
The mandoline, it should be said at the outset, will cost you somewhere between $80 and $125 or more, depending on the store where you buy it and whether you choose to buy the holder -- similar to the Moha holder described above -- that goes with it. It pays to shop around for mandolines, as prices vary substantially.
One advantage the mandoline has over other implements of its kind is its easy adjustability. It makes plain slices, rounded julienne, square julienne and french fries, all without removable blades -- the blades are built into the machine.
Thickness of slices is set by a lever that moves the slicing blade back and forth. The thickest slice is about 1/4 inch, the thinnest paper thin. And you can get any thickness within those parameters, since the blade is completely adjustable.
The rounded julienne blade operates the same way. In its most professional application, the rounded julienne blade is used for making "waffled" potatoes. You adjust the blade so that it makes ridges in the slice, then you rotate each slice a quarter turn and run it against the blade again -- voila, potato slices that look a little like waffles. (This is admittedly an arcane proposition, but the desire to do it occurs to people more often than you might think.)
The classical, metal mandoline comes with folding legs that hold it in comfortable working position. When you're through they fold flat.
Mandolines are produced with varying numbers of fixed blades; the fewer the blades, the wider the spacing, the larger the french fry. The choices are among machines that produce french fries that are about 1/5-, 1/4- and 3/8-inches thick. However, in most stores that carry mandolines you won't have a choice, so if you have a preference, you'll have to look around.
That can be a difficult decision; french fries seem to be a very personal matter. Having said that, it seems to me that 1/4 inch is about right, unless you make the huge, steak-house-style fries that you'd have to cut by hand in any case. Fries any smaller than that run the risk of turning into matchsticks. Any bigger and you may as well cut by hand.
So the mandoline is a versatile, sturdy, expensive machine that provides more control than the food processor.
There is also a wooden slicer on the market that makes plain and waffle slices. I found it harder to use, especially the waffle blade, than either than mandoline or the Moha. It's a bit cheaper, though, about $20.
If all you want to do is cut french fries, consider the little hand-held job consisting of a metal grid and a holder on either side. You pose it on top of the potato (whose bottom has been squared off so that it will stand firm) and make an authoritative whack downward. These things are widely available, and cost only a dollar or two.
You can also spend $27.50 on a machine that makes only french fries, albeit with slightly less expenditure of your energy thanks to its simple gear system. This machine, made in Italy and called a "potato-chipper," seems like something you'd buy only if you had extra money hanging around and make french fries for crowds very often.
Which only goes to show that there is a machine for every personality.