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  • Steven Hansen

Yummy Origin Stories: Potato Chips

We love food! We especially love creative food treats that were invented to make us happy, if not necessarily healthy. You just know the origin stories of those delightful products have to be interesting and probably surprising, too!


Potato chips. They may be the most American snack food of all. They’re crispy, salty, and need no cooking. Plus they go with everything!


Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell famously nibbled on potato chips and slurped champagne in “The Seven Year Itch,” the iconic American comedy of the 1950s.



Like many of our time-honored food and drink concoctions, the history of the potato chip is a bit cryptic. There had been a few simple recipes for “shaved potatoes” printed in cookbooks of the early 19th century.


But legend has it they were invented -- or at least popularized -- in the early 1850s by George Speck, an Adirondack guide and cook of African American and St. Regis Mohawk native heritage. Speck worked as a chef at Moon’s Lake House, an expensive eatery on Saratoga Lake, New York, that catered to wealthy families that summered in the area.



Customers included the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt who became a fan of Speck’s wild duck and venison dinners, along with his popular, paper-thin, crispy potato “Saratoga chips.”


Speck made a name for himself with his culinary skills and in 1860 opened his own highly popular restaurant nearby called Crum’s. He had since changed his name to George Crum supposedly because that’s what Vanderbilt mistakenly called him once.


At his own place, Speck made sure every table had a basket of his Saratoga chips for diners to snack on while they waited for their meals.


Soon, Cary Moon, owner of Moon’s Lake House, began claiming credit for the invention, and began mass-producing the chips and selling them in paper cones and boxes in the Saratoga area and in New York City.


According to a number of sources, before she died at age 102, George Speck’s sister, Mrs. Catherine "Aunt Kate" Wicks, said she was the real inventor of the potato chip. Wicks had worked alongside her brother in the kitchen at Moon’s Lake House.



She recalled making the first chip by accident when a thin slice of potato fell into a pan of fat. After her brother tasted the delicacy, he saw the future potential for making and promoting the new snack innovation as his own.



Video: How potato chips are made today, courtesy of Better Made Snack Foods, Detroit, Michigan:






Photos (from top): 1951 magazine ad for A&P Potato Chips; still from “The Seven Year Itch," TM & © Fox (1955), Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; George Speck and his sister Catherine Wicks in front of Moon’s Lake House Restaurant, 1853/George S. Bolster Collection; Saratoga Chips box/Originalsaratogachips.com.

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