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The fine details surrounding the invention of one of the United States' favorite snack foods are somewhat hazy, but all signs point to a man named George Crum, a cook and restaurateur who is said to have come up with the idea for the tasty crisp.
Born George Speck in 1822 in Saratoga Lake, New York, Crum was the son of an African American father and Native American mother, a member of the Huron tribe. He professionally adopted the name "Crum" as it was the name his father used in his career as a jockey. As a young man Crum worked as a guide in the Adirondack Mountains and as an Indian trader. Eventually he came to realize he possessed exceptional talent in the culinary arts.
In the summer of 1853, he was working as a chef at Saratoga Springs' elegant Moon Lake Lodge resort, where French-fried potatoes were a favorite on the menu. This preparation for potatoes, in which the tubers are cut lengthwise, lightly fried, and eaten with a fork, is said to have become popular in the 1700s. Thomas Jefferson, having enjoyed them in France during his service as an ambassador to that country, is known to have introduced them to local folks at home and liked to eat and serve them frequently.
As the story goes, Crum, whose sister Kate worked alongside him as a prep cook, became agitated when a customer sent his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were cut too thickly. Crum, by all accounts somewhat of an ornery and at times sarcastic man, reacted by slicing the potatoes as thin as he possibly could, frying them in grease, and sending the crunchy brown chips back out on the guest's plate that way.
The reaction was unexpected: The guest loved the crisps. In fact, other guests began asking for them as well, and soon Crum's "Saratoga Chips" became one of lodge's most popular treats.
In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant, "Crumbs House," near Saratoga Lake where he catered to an upscale clientele. Guests are said to have included the likes of William Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. One of the restaurant's attractions was that a basket of potato chips was placed on every table.
Crum never patented or attempted to widely distribute his potato chips; nevertheless they were soon on their way to becoming an international phenomenon via a number of aspiring snack food entrepreneurs around the country. Crum closed his restaurant in 1890. He died on July 22, 1914, at the age of 92.
Meanwhile, in 1895, a man by the name of William Tappendon began making potato chips for sale to local grocery stores, at first in his kitchen and later in a makeshift factory behind his house. This marked the first attempt by any person to put potato chips onto grocery store shelves. Others followed his lead, including the Hanover Home Potato Chip company out of Hanover Penn., established in 1921. Soon grocers in numerous areas around the United States were selling chips in bulk, from barrels, or out of glass display cases.
In 1926, Laura Scudder came up with the concept of putting potato chips into wax paper bags, and the "bag of chips" concept was born. In 1932, Herman Lay founded Lay's in Nashville, Tenn. His potato chips became the first successfully marketed national brand. Phenomenal success followed for him and for scores of other potato chip makers. Today, retail sales of potato chips in the United States alone top $6 billion per year.