April 24, 2024

The Origins of Potato Chips

The origins of potato chips can be traced to Thomas Jefferson, by way of an irascible, short-tempered chef in upstate New York.

Origins of potato chips: Meuse River Valley
The Meuse River Valley

Despite the name, no one is exactly sure where ‘French Fries’ originated.

The long, thin, deep-fried potato chips are popular in France, but also in Belgium and Spain. All three countries lay claim to their invention.

Some researchers are sure that French Fries originated along the Meuse River in Belgium, sometime in the mid 1600’s, where local peasants used them as a replacement for fried fish in winter.

Others claim that they were invented among the cheap cafes of inner Paris, also in the 17th century, near the Point Neuf, where they became a popular snack among the lower classes.

Still another theory posits that as Spain was the country that brought potatoes to Europe, returning with the conquistadors from South America, it is logical that fries would have developed there.

There is only circumstantial evidence to support any of these claims, and none has been conclusively proven.

What we do know, is who brought French Fries to America.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most important figures in the history of the United States.

He drafted the Declaration of Independence, served as the country’s first Secretary of State, and also its third President.

Between 1784 and 1789 he was also the United States’ Ambassador to France. France, a long-standing enemy of England, had been the American's key ally during the revolutionary war, supplying them with finance, arms, and even troops.

After the war, the newly independent United States sent Jefferson, a rising political figure, to Paris to negotiate permanent, long-term treaties with the major European powers. While he was there, Jefferson developed a taste for French cuisine.

Pommes des Frites
Pommes des Frites; traditional preparation

Whatever the origin of French Fries, by the time Jefferson arrived in Paris they were firmly established.

Known as ‘Pommes de Frites’, AKA ‘Fried potatoes’, the item was common on restaurant menus, and widely utilised as a side dish.

Something of a foodie, Jefferson had his chef compile a recipe book of his favourite French dishes, which he took back to America with him at the end of his assignment.

This included such soon to be American staples as Vanilla Ice Cream, Macaroni and Cheese, and Fried Potatoes, all unknown in the US at the time.

The Virginia Housewife, one of America's first cookbooks
One of America's first cookbooks

Jefferson’s recipe for Pommes de Frites was compiled in one of America’s first cookbooks; ‘The Virginian Housewife’, written by Mary Randolph and published in 1824.

While the cooking and presentation of the fried potatoes was similar to the present day, the shape of them is different. The Randolph recipe calls for round, flat potato wedges, about 75mm thick, although it is likely they were prepared in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Fried potatoes caught on in the eastern states of America, and soon became commonplace.

Saratoga Springs, 1850s.
Saratoga Springs, 1850s.

Saratoga Springs is a small town in upstate New York, about 300 kilometres north of New York City.

By the mid 1800’s, this picturesque location was a popular weekend getaway destination, and featured a number of upmarket resorts, hotels and restaurants. These were staffed by a rotating population of hospitality workers; waiters, bar staff, and cooks.

One of these was George Crum.

Origin of Potato Chips: George Crum
George Crum

George Crum (AKA: George Speck) was born in Saratoga County in 1824, and fell into the local tourist industry as a teenager. His background is usually given as African-American, although it is possible he also had a Native American background. Details are sketchy.

Having worked a variety of casual jobs, from his early twenties he developed an interest in cooking, and began to working as a chef.

By 1853 he had developed a reputation as one of the best chefs in Saratoga Springs, and was employed at ‘Moon's Lake House’, a large-scale resort on the shore of Saratoga Lake.

He had also developed a reputation for being difficult; a volatile, temperamental man, who did not like criticism or complaints.

Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt

In August 1853, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a guest at Moon's Lake House.

The Vanderbilt’s were America’s wealthiest family, and Cornelius was the patriarch that had built the empire. Starting with one boat on New York harbour, he had steadily developed a huge shipping and rail empire, that spanned the country.

One evening during his stay, Vanderbilt ordered a side dish of fried potatoes with his meal. When they came, he was dis-satisfied, saying they were not crispy enough, and had them returned to the kitchen.

George Crum was the chef, and took exception to Vanderbilt’s complaint.

In a temper, he sliced a new batch of potatoes as thinly as possible, and then over cooked them in a deep fryer, burning them till they were brittle and crispy.

He then salted them, and had them returned to Vanderbilt.

Amazingly, they proved a success. Vanderbilt was delighted with the new dish, ate the entire serve, and returned his compliments to the kitchen.

Potato chips had been invented.

Moon's Lake House, Saratoga Springs
Moon's Lake House

This, in any case, is the legend.

It may, or may not, have happened as outlined above, although this story is often cited as an established fact (including in a book I have, about the origins of popular foods).

George Crum may have been the inventor of the potato chip, but whether it was the result of a temper tantrum and a disgruntled customer, is not known for certain. There is no tangible evidence to confirm the story, and even the origin of the tale itself is nebulous.

Origins of Potato Chips: Saratoga Chips
Saratoga Chips

Nevertheless, the case for George Crum as the creator of the potato chip is strong.

Two years later, in 1855, he opened his own restaurant in Saratoga Springs, called ‘Crumbs’. His trademark was a basket of very thinly cut, deep-fried potato slices, salted, that he placed on each table, as a free entrée.

These proved so popular that a local company began manufacturing them. Called ‘Saratoga Chips’, they were dried after cooking, and sold in bags, in a manner that would be very familiar to junk food aficionados worldwide.

The brand label for ‘Saratoga Chips’ featured a picture of George Crum’s restaurant. They caught on rapidly, and quickly spread across America.

Lay's: the world's most popular chip brand

Present day, nearly 700 million kilograms of potato chips are consumed in the US, every year.


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