Peggy Keener: Snap, crackle and crunch

Published 5:26 pm Friday, October 13, 2023

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You’re thinking Rice Krispies, right? And, you would be mistaken. Here’s a hint: In the U.S. on Super Bowl game day, an estimated 11.2 million pounds of these are consumed. Hmmmmm……….

Okay. All you smarty pants got it right. Potato chips, what else?

But who knows who invented them? Well, it seems that no one does for certain. The most common version of the potato chip’s origins involves Moon’s Lake House, a popular resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. One day in 1853, Cornelius Vanderbilt was dining there. He became disgruntled over the potatoes that he’d been served and sent them back to the kitchen. What he wanted was for them to be more thinly sliced.

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The chef was George Crum who had earned high distinction for his Native American and Black heritage cooking. “Harrumph!” Crum exclaimed. “So, he doesn’t like the potatoes, does he? Well, I’ll show him.” He then proceeded to slice the potatoes as thin as he possibly could; then fried them to a crisp. Much to his surprise … delight! … Vanderbilt loved them. The potato chip was born.

This version of the story had such sticking power that in 1976, American Heritage magazine dubbed Crum the “Edison of Grease.” As coveted as that title surely must have been, there is no wonder that it was soon contested. Enter greasy Crum’s 103 year old sister, Aunt Katie, who was cooking beside him on that fateful day. It was she, she claims, who sliced the paper thin potatoes. And furthermore, she argues, it didn’t even happen on that day. Accidentally, on a different day, she dropped a slice of potato into a boiling pot of grease, retrieved it with a fork and had her eureka moment.

In the meantime, undeterred by his argumentative sister, brother George went on to become seriously famous. Across America he was touted as being the best chef in the nation. His specialties were brook trout, lake bass, woodcock and partridge … with nary a mention of a potato chip anywhere. Even his eventual obituary did not mention the chip. This has to leave us doubting George, right?

Still another version has it that Hiram S. Thomas was the inventor. Thomas was a prominent Black hotelier who, next to Booker T. Washington, was the second most well-known African American in the region. And what region would that be? Well, Moon’s Lake House, of course. In the 1890s, Thomas ran the restaurant for almost a decade. The problem with his claim to potato chip fame, though, is that it came some 40 years after Crum and Aunt Katie’s discoveries. As you can see, the history is considerably gnarly.

Next in contention was Emeline Jones, renowned as the cook to the rich, famous and powerful in New York City and Washington, D.C. And wouldn’t you know it? Emeline had also, at one time, worked briefly at Moon’s Lake House under Hiram Thomas. But truth be told, Emeline’s case is also pretty darned iffy, so it seems highly unlikely that she was the originator.

To discombobulate the historical scene even further, there is yet another report by a man named Stiles, who says that way before Crum and Emeline and Thomas, there was Eliza the Cook. In 1849, she was already crisping potatoes in the Lake House’s kitchen. Regrettably, Eliza’s last name is lost, as well as any more of her history.

So, who legitimately claims potato chip fame? Seems as though the town of Saratoga Springs does. It’s the very location, don’t you see? For years the chips were known as just that … Saratago Chips, and they are still to this day sold under that name.

In the beginning, Saratoga Chips were only a gourmet luxury served in the finest of hotels and restaurants. For example, In Detroit’s Cadillac Hotel they were enjoyed with chicken salad in aspic. On the luxury liner R.M.S. Berengaria, diners nibbled on them along side their roasted pheasant. And at home, extremely wealthy families expected their cooks to have mastered the art of chip-making. They could even buy elegant sterling silver Saratoga Chip servers at Tiffany’s! Well, hoity toity!

To sell them commercially, albeit, potato chips were a highly problematic business proposition. The problem was they were handmade and often sold in waxed paper bags that provided only a short shelf life. It wasn’t until the 1930s that two companies—Lay’s and Fritos—became big players in the tater chip trade. At first Fritos made their chips out of corn, not potatoes. Then they both got on board with potatoes and soon were mass producing them as a popular snack food. In time the product went universal. Potato chips alone became a $10 billion … yes, billion dollar … industry in America.

But, darn, we are still left with that niggling question of where the chip came from? And wouldn’t you know it, things got really dicey when the Brits entered the confusion. Some food historians suggest that way back to at least 1817, an English doctor named William Kitchiner published the first edition of his pioneer cookbook, The Cook’s Oracle. One of the recipes in it sounded oh, so suspiciously like today’s potato chips. It was called “potatoes fried in slices or shavings.”

Course, that is not to say that Kitchiner was the inventor. The bottom line, I suppose, is that the ubiquitous potato has long been loved throughout the world in a myriad of forms. For Pete’s sake, it has been invented and reinvented by countless cooks for centuries.

In the end, were the true claimers of potato chip fame the thing that was really important? I’d have to say no. The really, really important thing is that somebody did it.