Potato Chips: Just One More

In the mid 1960s, there was a television commercial extolling the golden, crunchy goodness of potato chips. Its catch phrase was "I bet you can’t eat just one!" Truer words were never spoken. A tiny nibble off the edge of a potato chip, no matter what your good intentions, led from the nibble to a normal size bite. Without thinking, you had eaten the entire chip in a blink of an eye. You thought to yourself, another chip can’t hurt. Nor the next one, nor the one after that. What was happening?! Good heavens! Was the commercial right? Were you turning into a potato chip junkie?

Let’s shed some light on the origins of this crunchy treat.

In the mid 1850s, frying potatoes was an accepted and popular form of American cooking. The normal manner of preparing fried potatoes was to slice them across the narrow axis and then fry them. They were not eaten with the fingers but rather, served with a fork, to be consumed in a genteel manner. Restaurants across the nation were serving fried potatoes, but it wasn’t until the chef at Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York, sliced the potato pieces so thin did they become the rage.

It is generally thought by food historians that George Crum was the inventor of the potato chip. He was a colorful personality in the Saratoga Springs area. A former guide in the Adirondacks, he came from a racially mixed background; he was part Indian and part African-American.

In 1853, George Crum was working as a cook at the Moon Lake Lodge resort. As mentioned earlier, fried potatoes were a popular fare. A demanding dinner guest, rumored to be Cornelius Vanderbilt, found his order of French fries (at that time, potatoes cut in a round shape) too thick for his liking and sent them back to the kitchen. Crum made a second batch, cut thinner than before and also fried, but these, too, were also rejected as being too thick. By this time, Crum was more than aggravated and in a fit of pique, took it upon himself to rile the guest by making him French fries that were much too thin and crisp to be skewered by a fork.

His "revenge" backfired on him. The fussy diner was ecstatic about the paper-thin potatoes and other guests requested Crum’s potatoes for themselves. Crum originally called his snack "Potato Crunches" but the dish, now a house specialty, was listed on the menu as "Saratoga Chips." Shortly thereafter, they were packaged and sold, at first locally, but rapidly grew in popularity throughout the New England area.

In 1860, Crum opened up his own restaurant which featured his chips as the house specialty. He put baskets of the chips on each table and they became a vital drawing point to the success of his restaurant. Other than marketing the chips, Crum foolishly did not patent or otherwise protect his invention.

Peeling and slicing potatoes manually was slow and tedious. The 1920s invention of the mechanical potato peeler caused the potato chip industry to skyrocket from being a small specialty item to a top-selling snack food.

Potato chips were chiefly a Northern dinner dish for several decades after their invention. But, in the 1920s, merchandizing and distribution of the snack took a turn for the better; their popularity growing year by year throughout the entire 20th century.

In the 1920s, Herman Lay, a traveling salesman working the Southern region of the country, was a major catalyst in popularizing the chips from Atlanta to Tennessee. He peddled Crum’s creation to Southern grocers straight out of the trunk of his car, his name and business eventually becoming synonymous with this crisp and salty treat. In 1932, he purchased a potato chip factory in Atlanta. 1938 marked the beginning of Lay’s Brand Potato Chips.

The early part of the 20th century brought forth several companies building large factories for the mass production of potato chips. The 1920s gave birth of three companies which define the potato chip industry.

Earl Wise, Sr., of the Wise Delicatessen Company in Berwick, Pennsylvania, had too many potatoes. In 1921, he used the extras to make potato chips and sold them in brown paper bags as Wise Potato Chips through the delicatessen.

In 1921, Utz Quality Foods of Hanover, Pennsylvania was founded by Bill and Salie Utz. Salie made the chips which were marketed and sold by her husband Bill, and were called Hanover Home Brand Potato Chips. Salie was able to turn out about 50 pounds of potato chips per hour, using hand-operated equipment, in a small summer house behind their home.

1926 was noteworthy for potato chip distribution. Until then, potato chips were kept in bulk in cracker barrels or glass display cases. Retailers dispensed the chips in paper bags. Paper was not very practical, as oil from the chips could seep through the sacks and onto the consumer’s hands.

Laura Scudder had a family chip business in Monterey Park, California. She understood the inherent flaw in the paper sacks; no one enjoyed being covered with cooking oil. Her inspired solution to this problem was brilliant. When her women employees went home at night, carrying sheets of waxed paper, they hand-ironed them into bags (the original Baggie™?). The following day, the employees hand-filled chips into the waxed paper bags and then sealed them with a warm iron. Voila! Greaseproof bags, ready to be delivered to retailers.

Potato chips are now the favorite snack of Americans, who eat more potato chips than any other population in the world.

Some interesting side notes:

In colonial times, New Englanders considered potatoes to be ideal as pig fodder. They believed that eating these tubers shortened a person’s life expectancy. The New Englanders were not concerned that potatoes were fried in fat and covered with salt (every cardiologist’s bane); they had much more worry about pleasures of the flesh. They believed the potato, in its pristine state, contained an aphrodisiac which led to actions and behavior felt to be detrimental to long life; according to these souls, eating an unadulterated potato led to the demon SEX and of course, sex led to the downfall of man. For more than over a century, we have known this to be not true and just the result of misdirected thinking.

Mass potato chip production, in modern facilities, uses continuous fryers or flash frying. Shockingly, some potato chips are made from reconstituted potato flakes (yuck!) in place of raw potato slices.

I bet you can’t eat just one...

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About The Author, Terry Kaufman
Terry Kaufman is Chief Editorial Writer for Niftykitchen.com, Niftyhomebar.com, and Niftygarden.com.©2007 Terry Kaufman. No reprints without permission.