George Crum’s potato chips.
ome types of food are so much part of our everyday life to attract little attention. Great is the surprise when finding out their true origin, involving interesting stories and people. People like George Crum, a very special cook, considered by many the inventor of the so-called potato “chips”.
A recipe invented by accident.
any believe that the invention of potato chips happened by chance. Two legends about it are most frequently mentioned, both of them involving a colored cook, George Crum, and his sister, Catherine “Aunt Katie” Wicks.
The irritating customer.
The most popular legend tells that chips were born thanks to a fussy customer: he kept insisting that the fries he was served were too thick. After many attempts to please him, the cook, George Crum, used some potatoes cut so thin that, once fried, they became crisp.
The ditzy cook.
Another legend tells that “Aunt Katie”, slicing a potato, cut a very thin piece by mistake and it accidentally fell in a pan, starting to fry. As fate would have it, his brother George Crum tasted this fragment and was immediately amazed by its crispness and flavor.
The true origins of potato chips.
he two stories mentioned in the previous paragraph, even if quite famous, are just legends, since there are no evidences to prove them. Colorful anecdotes, created by some newspapers to attribute the origins of this food to Saratoga Springs, the city of George Crum. It has to be said that the cook himself always kept a very low profile about these stories, letting them spread and avoiding to comment, at least officially. So, it’s probably no coincidence that he didn’t patent his supposed invention.
It’s actually very likely that chips were born well before it’s commonly believed: very similar recipes can be found in at least a couple of cookbooks dating back to early Nineteenth Century. Digging further into the past, it could come out that their origins should be attributed to one of the European countries, like Spain, France, Germany and Netherlands, with the oldest tradition in cooking potatoes.
The undeniable merit of George Crum and of all those who sold potato chips in Saratoga Springs, was to transform this simple food into a true cultural phenomenon, making it famous.
George Crum: hunter, guide and cook.
eorge Crum was born in 1824 in Saratoga County (State of New York). It is known for certain that his mother was a Native American, but there are still doubts about the father: some say that he was European, some others African.
George began to make a living as a guide and as a hunter, supplying local restaurants with game and fish. One of his most important customers was the famous Hotel San Souci, where some years later he started to cook as an apprentice. In 1854 he worked with his sister “Aunt Katie” at the Moon’s Lake House: it is said that this is the place where he invented potato chips. In 1860 he opened his own restaurant: the “Crum’s”. It was in Storey Hill, near Malta (New York). Its customers included some of the most important people of the time.
Three restaurants for Crum.
Three places have great importance in the life of George Crum:
1) The San Souci, one of the most important hotels in Saratoga Springs during the Nineteenth Century. He started supplying its restaurant with fish and game and then worked in its kitchens as an apprentice cook.
2) The Moon’s Lake House, where he worked as a cook. Legend says that here he invented the potato chips.
3) The Crum’s: his restaurant, founded in 1860.
The Hotel San Souci.
Since its construction, completed in 1803, and for many years after, the San Souci was the most important hotel in Ballston Spa, a city not far from Saratoga Springs. Its structure was built with the specific intent of accommodating the rich people visiting the area for its renown mineral springs. It was provided with a great number of elegantly furnished rooms, lavish halls, a luxury restaurant and a billiard room. All these services were quite expensive: one day at the San Souci could cost more than an entire week in a good hotel.
The Moon’s Lake House.
It was the year 1853 when Cary Moon and his wife Harriet bought the Loomi’s Lake House and gave it their name: the Moon’s Lake House was born. Although the competition from the other houses was fierce, they were strongly determined to beat it, doing things in style and offering many entertainment options to the rich customers. The gossip about their exclusive private parties traveled fast. These events, attended by the most famous and influential people of the time, became the forbidden dream of every American.
The “Crum’s” in Storey Hill.
In 1860 George Crum, after a lifetime of hard work, opened his own restaurant: the “Crum’s”. Since the beginning, its menu offered delicious and top quality food, and attracted a lot of wealthy and influential people. Among them, great tycoons like Cornelius Venderbilt and Jay Gould. It is said that baskets full of the famous potato chips decorated the tables of this restaurant.
The “Saratoga chips”: a trendy appetizer.
s already mentioned in this article, during the Nineteenth Century, Saratoga Springs was the favorite place of many wealthy businessmen, artists, diplomats and intellectuals, who came from all over the United States to have fun and relax. In a context like this, every innovation was greeted with huge enthusiasm: for some time, potato chips were at the center of attention. Eating them was very trendy: all the gossip magazines showed pictures of celebrities tasting them while strolling around. The forbidden dream of the average American was to attend one of the exclusive parties at Moon’s Lake House and to taste its famous chips.
A journalist of the time reported that:
“… soon you saw all Saratoga dipping into cornucopias filled with golden-brown paper-thin potatoes; a gathered crowd was likely to create a sound like a scuffling through dried autumn leaves”.
Great tycoons are loyal customers of Crum.
t seems that the food prepared by George Crum was much appreciated by many famous personalities who used to spend their moments of relax in Saratoga Springs. Among them, there are some particularly worth mentioning, for example two very famous tycoons:
ommodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was born in 1794. He belonged to a family of humble origins emigrated from the Netherlands (“De Bilt” is a Dutch village). He left school when still very young, showing immediately a great skill in business: he was just sixteen when he founded his first transport company. Years later, his investments in the American railway system would make him one of the richest men in the world.
The “Grand Central”, the impressive train station of New York City, was built in 1871 by Cornelius Vanderbild.
ay Gould was born in 1798 from a poor family originally from Scotland. When he was young he chose to study instead of being a farmer, as his father wanted. He started his business career as a successful entrepreneur in leather production.
Thanks to his investments in the American railways, he got very rich. So rich that in 1873 he acquired the control of the famous “Union Pacific” company.
Many historians think that, in 1869, some speculative moves by Gould caused the so-called “Black Friday”.
Potato chips “invade” the United States.
he credit for the success and the diffusion of potato chips throughout the United States, belongs to a brilliant nurse and to a salesman. The first one invented the right packaging to preserve their qualities, the second produced and distributed them all around the country.
Laura Scudder and the chips packaging.
aura Scudder started to work as a nurse. Some years later she left her job and in 1926 she founded a food and snack company. Her great success was due to a brilliant idea she had: to put potato chips in waxed paper bags, in order to keep them fresh and crisp for a long period of time. This idea was extremely important since it gave way to their large scale production.
fter having lost his job as an employee during the Great Depression of 1929, Herman Lay started to work as a commercial agent, selling packets of chips throughout the United States. In 1932, thanks to a small loan, he founded his own snack company: the H.W. Lay Distributing Company. Soon it became the most important in the country. Nowadays, Frito Lay is a subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc.
How to make potato chips
ere follows a video showing how to make potato chips.
A secret kept for a long time
ary Moon, owner of the Moon’s Lake House, for quite a lot of time kept the secret about how to make the potato chips he served in his restaurant. The “Saratoga chips” he sold were considered particularly tasty and any attempt to copy them had failed miserably. Only after many years, he finally decided to reveal his method: this didn’t cause a drop of customers. The Moon’s Lake House remained a point of reference for all those who loved this food speciality.
Many names for crispy potatoes
n the United States, the first crisp potatoes were known as “Saratoga fried potatoes” or “Saratoga chips”. Some called them “potato crunches”. Nowadays, the name most commonly used is “potato chips” or just “chips”.
MUSIC FOR POTATO CHIPS
Some classic blues music to accompany this article.
The lake houses
he “lake houses” were places of entertainment for the people visiting Saratoga Springs. These entertainments included, for example, panoramic excursions and the opportunity to rent a boat to go fishing. Quite often there was also a restaurant, serving meat and fish. Waiting for the meal, the guests could chill out drinking an aperitif and eating the renowned “Saratoga Chips”.
Some houses, like the Moon’s Lake House, were very famous for hosting exclusive parties that could last all night.
Generally, it was not possible to rent a room.
George Crum or George Speck?
eorge Crum was used to sign official documents as “Speck”. It’s difficult to determine for sure his original surname, since he was half Native American and (probably) half African.
There are many hypotheses, for example:
Some think that his original surname was “Speck” and that he later adopted “Crum”, the nickname given to his father when he was a jockey.
Some claim that “Crum” is a nickname he got from one of his best customers: Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt loves the food prepared by Crum
ornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time, loved very much the food prepared by Goerge Crum: that’s why he was a loyal client of the Moon’s Lake House and of Crum’s.
Some claim that Venderbilt was the fussy customer in the legend about the invention of potato chips.
An aperitif at the Moon’s
he guests of the Moon’s Lake House could relax sitting on a deck chair on the large patio in front of the building. There, they would sip an aperitif and taste the famous chips, while enjoying a spectacular view of the lake.
THE RIGHT BEVERAGE
hat to drink with some crispy potato chips? A good choice is a beer, soft, medium warm and quite fresh.
The softness balances the saltiness.
The alcohol balances the (induced) succulence of the potatoes and the greasiness of the frying.
The acidity balances the sweet tendency of the potatoes.
All the images used in this page, with the exception of those marked with the “webfoodculture” logo, are released in public domain:
©:1 (*) – George Crum, Georgs S. Bolster Collection, 1900 (Wikipedia Link)
©:2 (**) – Virginia Woolf (Wikipedia Link)
©:3 (*) – Sans Souci Hotel, Ballston Spa, NY, 1887 (Wikipedia Link)
©:4 (*) – Moon’s Lake House, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1896 (Wikipedia Link)
©:5 (*) – Image from “Miller’s Guide to Saratoga …” by T.A. Richards, 1867 (Wikipedia Link)
©:6 (*) – Cornelius Vanderbilt, the “railroad tycoon”, 1877 (Wikipedia Link)
©:7 (*) – Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1844/1860 (Wikipedia Link)
©:8 (*) – Jay Gould, United States Library of Congress (Wikipedia Link)
©:9 (*) – Grand Central Depot, New York City, 1880 (Wikipedia Link)
©:10 (*) – Cartoon, “Jay Gould’s Private Bowling Alley.”, 1882 (Wikipedia Link)
(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.