When Covid-19 forced people to stay home, many of us found solace in a snack: potato chips. The crispy treats enjoyed around a $350 million increase in sales from 2019 to 2020. When the chips are down, it seems, Americans gobble them up.
Any search for the origins of this signature finger food must lead to George Crum (born George Speck), a 19th-century chef of Native and African American descent who made his name at Moon’s Lake House in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York. As the story goes, one day in 1853, the railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt was eating at Moon’s when he ordered his fried potatoes be returned to the kitchen because they were too thick. Furious with such a fussy eater, Crum sliced some potatoes as slenderly as he could, fried them to a crisp and sent them out to Vanderbilt as a prank. Rather than take the gesture as an insult, Vanderbilt was overjoyed.
Other patrons began asking for Crum’s “Saratoga Chips,” which soon became a hit far beyond Upstate New York. In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant near Saratoga known as Crum’s House or Crum’s Place, where a basket of potato chips sat invitingly on every table. Crum oversaw the restaurant until retiring over 30 years later; in 1889, a New York Herald writer called him “the best cook in America.” Crum died in 1914, but today’s astounding variety of potato chips, from cinnamon-and-sugar Pringles to flamin’ hot dill pickle Lay’s, are a tribute to the man American Heritage magazine called “the Edison of grease.”
Still, historians who have peeled the skin off this story have hastened to point out that Crum was not the sole inventor of the chip, or even the first. The earliest known recipe for chips dates to 1817, when an English doctor named William Kitchiner published The Cook’s Oracle, a cookbook that included a recipe for “potatoes fried in slices or shavings.” And in July 1849, four years before Crum supposedly dissed Vanderbilt, a New York Herald reporter noted the work of “Eliza,” also, curiously, a cook in Saratoga Springs, whose “potato frying reputation” had become “one of the prominent matters of remark at Saratoga.” Yet scholars are united in acknowledging that Crum popularized the chip. It was in Saratoga that the chips came into their own—today you can buy a version of Crum’s creations under the name Saratoga Chips—and in America that they became a culinary and commercial juggernaut.
For a long time, chips remained a restaurant-only delicacy. But in 1895 an Ohio entrepreneur named William Tappenden found a way to keep them stocked on grocery shelves, using his kitchen and, later, a barn turned factory in his backyard to make the chips and deliver them in barrels to local markets via horse-drawn wagon. Countless other merchants followed suit.
It would take another bold innovator to ignite the revolution, the result of which no birthday party or football game or trip to the office vending machine would ever be the same. In 1926, Laura Scudder, a California businesswoman, began packaging chips in wax-paper bags that included not only a “freshness” date but also a tempting boast—“the Noisiest Chips in the World,” a peculiarly American marketing breakthrough that made a virtue of being obnoxious. The snack took another leap the following year, when Leonard Japp, a Chicago chef and former prizefighter, began to mass-produce the snack—largely, the rumor goes, to serve one client: Al Capone, who allegedly discovered a love for potato chips on a visit to Saratoga and thought they would sell well in his speak-easies. Japp opened factories to supply the snack to a growing list of patrons, and by the mid-1930s was selling to clients throughout the Midwest, as potato chips continued their climb into the pantheon of America’s treats; later, Japp also created what can be considered the modern iteration by frying his potatoes in oil instead of lard.
When Lay’s became the first national brand of potato chips in 1961, the company enlisted Bert Lahr, famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, as its first celebrity spokesman, who purred the devilish challenge, “Betcha can’t eat just one.”
Americans today consume about 1.85 billion pounds of potato chips annually, or around 6.6 pounds per person. The U.S. potato chip market—just potato chips, never mind tortilla chips or cheese puffs or pretzels—is estimated at $10.5 billion. And while chips and other starchy indulgences have long been criticized for playing a role in health conditions such as obesity and hypertension, the snack industry has cleaned up its act to some extent, cooking up options with less fat and sodium, from sweet potato chips with sea salt to taro chips to red lentil crisps with tomato and basil.
Still, for many Americans, the point of chips has always been pure indulgence. Following a year of fast-food buzz, last October Hershey released the most sophisticated snack mashup since the yogurt-covered pretzel: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups stuffed with potato chips. Only history can judge whether this triple-flavored calorie bomb will be successful. But more than a century and a half after Crum’s peevish inspiration, the potato chip isn’t just one of our most popular foods but also our most versatile.
Inventing How We Eat
Other Black innovators who helped Americans work magic in the kitchen and beyond
By Chris Klimek