The Origin of Potato Chips

A fussy magnate and a miffed chef led to the creation of this global snack.

When lockdown forced people to stay at home, many of us found solace in a snack: potato chips. The crispy treats enjoyed around a $350 million increase in sales from 2019 to 2020. When the chips are down, it seems, Americans gobble them up.


Any search for the origins of this signature finger food must lead to George Crum (born George Speck), a 19th-century chef of Native and African American descent who made his name at Moon’s Lake House in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, reports Smithsonian Magazine.


As the story goes, one day in 1853, the railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt was eating at Moon’s when he ordered his fried potatoes be returned to the kitchen because they were too thick. Furious with such a fussy eater, Crum sliced some potatoes as slenderly as he could, fried them to a crisp and sent them out to Vanderbilt as a prank. Rather than take the gesture as an insult, Vanderbilt was overjoyed.


Other patrons began asking for Crum’s “Saratoga Chips,” which soon became a hit far beyond Upstate New York.


In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant near Saratoga known as Crum’s House or Crum’s Place, where a basket of potato chips sat invitingly on every table. Crum oversaw the restaurant until retiring over 30 years later; in 1889, a New York Herald writer called him “the best cook in America.”


Crum died in 1914, but today’s astounding variety of potato chips, from cinnamon-and-sugar Pringles to flamin’ hot dill pickle Lay’s, are a tribute to the man American Heritage magazine called “the Edison of grease.”


Americans today consume about 1.85 billion pounds of potato chips annually, or around 6.6 pounds per person. The U.S. potato chip market - just potato chips, never mind tortilla chips or cheese puffs or pretzels - is estimated at $10.5 billion.

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