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George Crum: the man who invented the potato chip

4 min read

The almighty potato chip, a culinary marvel in the world of junk food still today, has long been the number one American (and not only) snack food, enjoyed by millions of people every day. The legendary story of its origin goes way back to 1853 when a frustrated cook kept trying to please a very demanding customer….

George Crum (born George Speck, 1824–1914) was a renowned African American chef who worked at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York during the mid-1800s. He was born to parents Abraham Speck and Diana Tull on July 15, 1824. He grew up in upstate New York and, At a young age, he was working as a hunting guide and a trapper. In the 1850s, he was hired at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, a high-end restaurant that catered to wealthy Manhattan families. Along with his sister Catherine “Kate” Wicks, 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.
Depending the version of the story you heard, George Speck adopted the name “Crum” after his father’s racing horse, joking that “A crumb is bigger than a speck.” According to another version, a regular patron of the restaurant, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a rich railroad mogul, frequently forgot Speck’s given surname and this led him to ask waiters to relay various requests to “Crum,” thus giving Speck the name he is now known by.

As the widely accepted story goes, the potato chip was invented during a hot and balmy 1853 summer afternoon (August 24), when a picky customer (Vanderbilt himself, according to some reports) repeatedly sent back an order of french fries, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated with the customer’s demands, Crum sought revenge by slicing a batch of potatoes paper-thin, so thinly that “the fork could not skewer them”, frying them to a crisp, and seasoning them with lots of salt. Surprisingly, rather than expressing further dissatisfaction, the customer loved them and ordered more. Soon enough, Crum and Moon’s Lake House became well-known for their special “Saratoga chips”. The owner, Mr. Cary Moon, quickly rushed to promote this new meal and began serving them in paper cones and later in boxes.

But this is just a legend or not?
A number of notable accounts have disputed the story of Crum’s culinary innovation, in fact recipes for frying thin potato slices had already been published in cookbooks by the early 1800s and, in addition, several reports on Crum himself (including a 1983 commissioned biography of the chef and his own obituary) curiously lacked any mention of potato chips whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Crum’s sister, Kate Wicks, claimed to be the real inventor of the potato chip. Her obituary, published in The Saratogian in 1924, read, “A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102, and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips.” This statement is supported by Kate’s own recollections of the tale, which were published in several periodicals during her lifetime. Kate explained that she had sliced off a sliver of potato and it inadvertently fell into a hot frying pan. She had let Crum taste it and his enthusiastic approval led to the decision to serve the chips.
In any case, lot of visitors came from far and wide to Moon’s Lake House for a taste of the famous Saratoga chips, sometimes even taking a 10-mile trip around the lake just to get to the restaurant.
Once Crum opened his own restaurant in the 1860s in Malta, Saratoga County, called “Crum’s House”, he provided every table with a basket of chips.
Someone 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. However, although Crum had already standardized the potato chips, he never actually patented them.

Crum’s chips remained a local delicacy until the 1920s when a salesman and entrepreneur named Herman Lay began traveling throughout the south and introducing potato chips to different communities. Eventually, Crum’s legacy was overtaken by the mass production and distribution of potato chips on a national scale, until today.
Despite the uncertain stories and doubts about the real creation of the potato chip, George Crum and his sister Catherine Wicks remain key contributors of this legendary snack and will be forever remembered as its inventors.

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