During Colonial times, New England farmers used potatoes strictly as pig feed. They believed that actually eating them shortened your life. The reason, probably a holdover from the Middle Ages, was the belief that potatoes, known as apples of love during Shakespeare’s time, contained a powerful aphrodisiac which, of course, led to behaviors that could be life shortening.
By 1802, Thomas Jefferson was enjoying potatoes with no ill effects, and fears of the spud gradually waned. Even in New England.
The potato chip began, so the story goes, back in 1853 when a grumpy customer (sometimes said to be Cornelius Vanderbilt) at the Moon Lake Lodge restaurant in Saratoga Springs, NY sent his fried potatoes back, complaining they were too soggy. The chef, George Crum (1822-1914) obligingly prepared another batch, but these were also sent back. Enough was enough.
In a fit of pique, Crum sliced some potatoes wafer thin, fried them brown and crisp, and doused them with salt. He expected the customer to choke and spit them out.
The opposite happened. Not only did the customer not choke, he loved them and ordered some more. Crum knew when he was licked. He added “Saratoga Chips” to the menu and watched them become a favorite snack item.
In 1860 George opened his own restaurant, called Crumb’s House, in a building near Saratoga Lake, and he placed large baskets of Saratoga Chips on every table. Within a few years the rich and famous of the day were making Crumb’s House the “go to” eatery of Saratoga. Customers like the Vanderbilts, Jay Gould, and Henry Hilton helped the spread of the new delicacy up and down the east coast.
George retired in 1890 and he died in 1914 at the age of 92.
By 1900, the thin, salty snack had acquired the name potato chip, although nobody knows when or how. They had become available in grocery stores in the north, usually sold in bulk out of barrels, tins, or glass cases. Potatoes were still peeled and sliced by hand, thus chips were limited to about 50 pounds per hour. This changed in the early 20s with the invention of the mechanical potato peeler.
In 1926, out in Monterey, CA, nurse-turned-lawyer-turned potato chip entrepreneur Laura Scudder (1881 – 1959) was working out a method to keep the chips from getting stale. She hit upon the scheme of having her workers take home waxed paper sheets, then ironing them into bags, which were filled with chips the next day and sealed. She also began marking each bag with the date it was filled, as a guarantee of freshness, soon helped along by her slogan, “Laura Scudder’s Potato Chips are the Noisiest Chips in the World.”
A few years after Laura Scudder hit upon the idea of putting her chips in bags, an enterprising traveling salesman named Herman Lay (1909 – 1982) formed the H.W. Lay Company in Nashville, and began selling his chips to grocery stores from Nashville to Atlanta out of the trunk of his Model A. By 1937, Lay had 25 employees, and throughout the south, his name had become synonymous with potato chips. As packaging, transportation and marketing improved, Lay’s became the first chip to be marketed nationally.
Lay began to think bigger, and in 1961 he merged his company with the Dallas-based Frito Company to form Frito-Lay. Frito began in a San Antonio kitchen making corn chips, and by the time of the merger the two companies were the largest in the nation selling snacks.
Frito-Lay, now a division of PepsiCo, is the largest potato chip manufacturer in the world. In 2010 Americans spent more than $6 billion on 1.2 billion pounds of chips.
Currently there are more than 200 different flavors of potato chip being produced around the world. For those with whetted appetites, here’s the list:
Want to try making your own? Not really all that difficult. Here’s one of the many ways: