The Secret History of Potato Chips
Tanya H. Lee
Potatoes were domesticated first in the Americas, so it is perfectly reasonable that the invention of the potato chip should be credited to an American Indian, albeit some 10,000 years later.
The story is that one George Crum, born George Speck around 1828 of American Indian and African American heritage, invented potato chips in 1853 when he was a chef at Moon’s Lake House Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York.
A picky customer sent his French fries back to the kitchen because they were too thick and mushy. Crum responded by making a new batch, cutting the potatoes as thin as possible, frying them in oil until they were crisp and dousing them with a good measure of salt. And voila! The snack, later dubbed Saratoga Chips, was an immediate hit among the well-to-do customers in this upper New York state resort town.
Some reports name railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) as the finicky customer. Descended from Dutch settlers who came to this continent in the 1600s, the Vanderbilt family was apparently still giving American Indians a hard time some 200 years later.
George Speck aka George Crum was born to an African American father and American Indian mother, possibly from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Saratoga Springs, just north of Albany, had been known by Europeans for its mineral springs since the late 17th century. When the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad arrived in town in 1832, it brought thousands of visitors and the beginning of a booming tourist economy to the region. Organized horse racing started in 1847 and in 1863, the Saratoga Race Course opened. Just a year earlier, John Morrissey had opened the first gambling house in town, rounding out the roster of activities available for visitors.
The tradition of gaming continues with almost a dozen resort casinos in the area, built by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, (parent company of ICTMN) Seneca Nation of New York, Cayuga Nation of New York, and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988.
Early on, George Crum was a mountain guide and trapper, as well as a jockey, according to some sources. But when Carey Briggs Moon opened Moon’s Lake House in 1853, George Crum signed on as a cook and the rest is history.
Or is it? Another version of the story credits the invention to Katie Wicks. Katie, also referred to as Catherine Ann, Kate, Aunt Kate, and Aunt Katie, may have been a Wicks or a Weeks. She was Crum’s sister or sister-in-law. According to this second version of the story, Wicks accidentally dropped a piece of raw potato into the oil for frying donuts. Crum fished the tidbit out of the oil, declared it delicious and started serving it to guests.
Other accounts of the invention of the potato chip note that a recipe for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” appeared in an English cookbook by William Kitchiner in 1822, but who’s to say Crum had ever read the tome or heard of that recipe? A newspaper article published in 1849 describes a very similar snack offered at a restaurant four miles east of Saratoga Springs, but whether these were actually potato chips is unknown.
In any case, Crum left Moon’s Lake House in 1860 and opened his own restaurant a few miles down the road on Malta Avenue in Saratoga Lake. Potato chips took pride of place, being offered as appetizers on each table. Crum’s restaurant operated successfully for 30 years, closing in 1890.
Crum lived to the age of 92, suggesting that potato chips might actually be good for you. That would be welcome news for Frito Lay, which dominates the U.S. market with a 60 percent share. The company sold nearly $3.25 billion worth of potato chips in 2014, according to Forbes.
This story was originally published February 15, 2016.