The almighty potato chip has long been the number one American snack food, enjoyed by millions of people every day. Their spectacular savory flavor means no chip goes uneaten and has proven to be a culinary marvel in the world of junk food. The legendary story of its origin goes way back to 1853 when a frustrated cook kept trying to please a demanding customer.
George Speck adopted the name “Crum” after his father’s racing horse, joking that “A crumb is bigger than a speck.” He was a cook with African-American and Mohawk ancestry, and had a penchant for hunting. He was born in 1822 in Saratoga, New York, though there are claims that he came from the Adirondacks. At a young age, he was working as a hunting guide and a trapper, and he worked as a cook at Cary Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs along with his sister Catherine Wicks, where he honed his culinary skills and he wasn’t afraid to experiment with foods. The Lake House was flourishing and business was good because of the railroad that cut through the town, bringing in many tourists and customers.
As the widely accepted story goes, George Crum was serving fried potatoes a to a very fussy customer named Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was a rich railroad mogul and a regular customer at Cary Moon’s Lake House. The wealthy customer was displeased with the thickly-cut potatoes and kept complaining every time the cook made another batch, demanding to cut them even thinner, much to Crum’s dismay. So the annoyed chef cooked up the final batch, cut the potatoes extremely thin, fried them to a crisp and seasoned the meal with a lot of salt. To Crum’s surprise, Vanderbilt was astonished by the vigorous flavor of this never-before-tasted cuisine and found it extremely appetizing. The owner, Mr. Cary Moon, quickly rushed to promote this new meal and began serving them in paper cones and later in boxes.
Although there were cookbooks for fried potato shavings years before George Crum was even born, the alternate version of the story is that George’s sister accidentally invented the potato chips, or “Saratoga chips”, while working with her brother. She had been cutting potatoes when a thin slice fell into the fryer and was fried to a crisp. Her contribution was essential and was not forgotten. This event was mentioned in her obituary in 1924 when she passed away at the old age of 102. The cookbooks that contained a British recipe from 1822 for “potatoes fried in slices and shavings” were well before Crum’s time, but the sliced potatoes were a quarter of an inch thick.
In any case, Crum established his very own restaurant called “Crum’s House” in Malta, Saratoga County, and the chips were turning out to be a culinary phenomenon, regularly served at every table. The “Saratoga chips” were quite pricey for the standards of that era. One source claims that Crum had his own strict rules in the restaurant; having no favorites among the rich guests, every customer was served equally and no one had special privileges. Guests had to wait their turn and even Mr. Vanderbilt himself once waited an hour and a half for his meal. Although Crum had already standardized the potato chips, he never actually patented them.
Entrepreneurs like Laura Scudder and Herman Lay developed wax paper bags to contain the chips, and hugely popularized the product in 1932. The company Lay’s would become a standard for the potato chip.
Despite the murky stories and doubts about the creation of the potato chip, George Crum and with his sister Catherine Wicks remain key contributors of this legendary snack and will be forever remembered as its inventors.