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The History of the Potato Chip

1853, Saratoga Springs, New York

As a world food, potatoes are second in human consumption only to rice. And as thin, salted, crisp chips, they are America's favorite snack food. Potato chips originated in New England as one man's variation on the French-fried potato, and their production was the result not of a sudden stroke of culinary invention but of a fit of pique.

In the summer of 1853, American Indian George Crum was employed as a chef at an elegant resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. On Moon Lake Lodge's restaurant menu were French-fried potatoes, prepared by Crum in the standard, thick-cut French style that was popularized in France in the 1700s and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson as ambassador to that country. Ever since Jefferson brought the recipe to America and served French fries to guests at Monticello, the dish was popular and serious dinner fare.

At Moon Lake Lodge, one dinner guest found chef Crum's French fries too thick for his liking and rejected the order. Crum cut and fried a thinner batch, but these, too, met with disapproval. Exasperated, Crum decided to rile the guest by producing French fries too thin and crisp to skewer with a fork.

The plan backfired. The guest was ecstatic over the browned, paper-thin potatoes, and other diners requested Crum's potato chips, which began to appear on the menu as Saratoga Chips, a house specialty. Soon they were packaged and sold, first locally, then throughout the New England area. Crum eventually opened his own restaurant, featuring chips. At that time, potatoes were tediously peeled and sliced by hand. It was the invention of the mechanical potato peeler in the 1920s that paved the way for potato chips to soar from a small specialty item to a top-selling snack food.

For several decades after their creation, potato chips were largely a Northern dinner dish. In the 1920s, Herman Lay, a traveling salesman in the South, helped popularize the food from Atlanta to Tennessee. Lay peddled potato chips to Southern grocers out of the trunk of his car, building a business and a name that would become synonymous with the thin, salty snack. Lay's potato chips became the first successfully marketed national brand, and in 1961 Herman Lay, to increase his line of goods, merged his company with Frito, the Dallas-based producer of such snack foods as Fritos Corn Chips.

Americans today consume more potato chips (and Fritos and French fries) than any other people in the world; a reversal from colonial times, when New Englanders consigned potatoes largely to pigs as fodder and believed that eating the tubers shortened a person's life—not because potatoes were fried in fat and doused with salt, today's heart and hypertension culprits, but because the spud, in its unadulterated form, supposedly contained an aphrodisiac which led to behavior that was thought to be life shortening. Potatoes of course contain no aphrodisiac, though potato chips are frequently consumed with passion and are touted by some to be as satisfying as sex.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this story you will love "Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Thing". It is in print and I got my copy at Barnes and Nobles.

[From: Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Thing" Charles Pantati, ISBN 0-06-096419-7 (pbk) ]

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"Lay's sold the potato chips out of his car. 
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Last updated August 4, 2011