George Crum’s potato chips


George Crum’s potato chips.

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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 fascinating stories and interesting people. People like George Crum, a very special cook, considered by many the inventor of potato chips.

A recipe invented by chance.

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any believe that the invention of potato chips happened by chance. There are many legends about it, the most frequently mentioned are two, both of them involving a colored cook, George Crum, and his sister, Catherine ‘Aunt Katie’ Wicks.


George Crum (img-01) George Crum (img-01)

The fussy customer.
The most popular legend tells that chips were invented 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, cut the potatoes so thin that, once fried, they became crisp.


Catherine 'Aunt Katie' Wicks (img-01) Catherine 'Aunt Katie' Wicks (img-01)

The ditzy cook.
Another legend says that ‘Aunt Katie’, slicing a potato, cut a very thin piece by mistake and this 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 taste and crispness.

The true origins of potato chips.

Potato chips.

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s already said, the two stories mentioned in the previous paragraph, although quite famous, are just legends, since there are no evidences to prove them. Colorful anecdotes, possibly created by some newspapers to attribute the origins of potato chips to Saratoga Springs. It’s important to remember that George Crum always kept a very low profile about these stories, letting them spread but avoiding any comment, at least officially. So, it’s no coincidence that he never patented his invention.

It’s very likely that people enjoyed chips well before it’s commonly believed. For example, very similar recipes can be found in at least a couple of cookbooks dating back to early Nineteenth Century. Digging further into the past, comes out that their origins should be probably attributed to one of the European countries, like Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, where potatoes have been cooked and eaten for centuries.

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 worldwide.


Bag of chips.

George Crum: hunter, guide and cook.

George Crum (img-01)

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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 of European origin, 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 in Storey Hill (near Malta, NY) his own restaurant: the ‘Crum’s’. Its customers included some of the most important people of the time.


Potato chips.

The places of George 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.


Hotel San Souci (img-03) Hotel San Souci (img-03)

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.


Moon’s Lake House (img-04) Moon’s Lake House (img-04)

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 lake houses was fierce, they were strongly determined to beat it, doing things in style and offering many entertainment options to their rich customers. The gossip about their exclusive private parties spread very 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.


Aperitif and chips.

The ‘Saratoga chips’: a trendy appetizer.

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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”.


Potato chips.

Great tycoons are loyal customers of Crum.

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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 these two very famous business tycoons:


Cornelius Vanderbilt (img-07) Cornelius Vanderbilt (img-07)

Cornelius Vanderbilt

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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.


Grand Central Depot, New York City (img-09) Grand Central Depot, New York City (img-09)

The “Grand Central”, the impressive train station of New York City, was built in 1871 by Cornelius Vanderbild.


Jason “Jay” Gould (img-08) Jason “Jay” Gould (img-08)

Jason ‘Jay’ Gould

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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 and became very rich years later thanks to his investments in the American railways. In 1873 he acquired the famous ‘Union Pacific’ company.


Jay Gould, bowling alley (img-02) Jay Gould, bowling alley (img-02)

Many historians think that, in 1869, some speculative moves by Gould caused the so-called “Black Friday”.

Potato chips ‘invade’ the United States.

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he great success and the diffusion of potato chips throughout the United States is due to a brilliant nurse and to a salesman. The nurse invented the right packaging to preserve their crispness, the salesman was the best to produce and distribute them all around the country.


Pocket of chips. Pocket of chips.

Laura Scudder and the packaging of chips.

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aura Scudder started her working career as a nurse. Some years later, in 1926, she left this job and founded a food and snack company. She is particularly famous for 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. An extremely important innovation, since it allowed their large scale production.


Pockets of chips. Pockets of chips.

Herman Lay and the chips production.

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fter having lost his first job in 1929, during the Great Depression, 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: this soon became the most important in the country. Nowadays, Frito Lay is a subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc.


Crispy potato chips.

How to.

How to make potato chips

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ere follows a video showing how to make potato chips.

A secret kept for a long time

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or quite a lot of time Cary Moon, owner of the Moon’s Lake House, kept the secret about the method of preparation of the potato chips he served in his restaurant. The ‘Saratoga chips’ he sold were considered very special and any attempt to copy them had failed miserably. Only after many years, he finally decided to reveal his secret: something that didn’t cause a drop of customers, since his place remained very famous among all those who loved this kind of food.

Many names for crispy potatoes

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n the United States, crispy potatoes were initially known as ‘Saratoga fried potatoes’ or ‘Saratoga chips’. Some called them ‘potato crunches’. Today the name most commonly used is ‘potato chips’ or just ‘chips’.

The lake houses

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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 visit the lake or to go fishing. Generally, it was not possible to rent a room. A restaurant service was often available: waiting for the meal, 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 their exclusive parties: these events, celebrated by many gossip magazines, often lasted all night.

George Crum or George Speck?

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eorge Crum quite often signed official documents as ‘Speck’: was this his original surname? It’s quite difficult to say, since his origins are not certain. There are many hypotheses, here follows a couple of them:
Some people think that his real surname was ‘Speck’ and that he started to use ‘Crum’, the nickname given to his father when he was a jockey.
Some other people claim that ‘Crum’ is a nickname he got from one of his best customers: Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt loves the food prepared by Crum

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ornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time, enjoyed so much the food prepared by Goerge Crum, to become one of his most loyal clients.
Some even speculate that he could be the fussy customer who accidentally led to the invention of potato chips.

An aperitif at the Moon’s

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he guests of the Moon’s Lake House could relax themselves sitting in its large patio and drinking a delicious aperitif accompanied by the famous chips, while enjoying a spectacular view of the lake.

Beverages.

THE RIGHT BEVERAGE

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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.




The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – George Crum, Georgs S. Bolster Collection, 1900 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Cartoon, “Jay Gould’s Private Bowling Alley.”, 1882 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Sans Souci Hotel, Ballston Spa, NY, 1887 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Moon’s Lake House, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1896 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Image from “Miller’s Guide to Saratoga …” by T.A. Richards, 1867 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Cornelius Vanderbilt, the “railroad tycoon”, 1877 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1844/1860 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Jay Gould, United States Library of Congress (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-09 (*) – Grand Central Depot, New York City, 1880 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.