The credit for America’s greatest inventions is often a matter of controversy. The telephone: Alexander Graham Bell or Elisha Gray? The radio: Guglielmo Marconi or Nicola Tesla? The airplane: Gustave Whitehead or the Wright Brothers?
Add to that illustrious list: the potato chip.
The most common origin story for the potato chip involves Moon’s Lake House, a popular restaurant in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But even there, at least five different men and women have been credited as its creator. What’s more, food historians suggest the chip probably wasn’t invented in Saratoga—and possibly not in the U.S. at all.
The Saratoga Story
The most popular potato chip legend goes like this: One day in 1853, the shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt was dining at Moon’s Lake House. Disappointed by the fried potatoes he’d been served, he sent them back to the kitchen, asking for more thinly sliced ones. George Crum, a famed chef of Native American and Black heritage, took umbrage at the request and, in an “I’ll show him!” mood, sliced some potatoes as thin as he could, fried them to a crisp and served them to Vanderbilt. To Crum’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved them, and the potato chip was born.
This version of events eventually became so well-established that, in 1976, American Heritage magazine would dub Crum, also known as George Speck, the “Edison of Grease.”
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Unfortunately, there are several problems with the Crum story. For one, if there was a disgruntled diner, it almost certainly wasn’t Vanderbilt. “There is no truth to the tale,” historian T.J. Stiles concluded in his Pulitzer prize-winning biography The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
For another, Crum’s supposed role in inventing the potato chip seems to have gone largely unrecognized in his lifetime, even though he was widely known across the U.S. and celebrated for his brook trout, lake bass, woodcock and partridge, among other dishes—making him perhaps the first celebrity chef in America. In 1889, a writer in the New York Herald called him “the best cook in the country,” with nary a word about potatoes. Most of his obituaries, in 1914, don’t mention the potato chip at all, and those that do simply say that he was “said to have” invented it.
Three years later, an obituary for Catherine Adkins Wicks, age 103, maintained that she, in fact, “was said to be the originator of the potato chip.” Wicks, who was Crum’s sister, worked alongside him in the kitchen and was familiarly known as Aunt Kate or Aunt Katie. In one variation of the disgruntled diner story, it is she, not Crum, who carved potatoes paper-thin in a moment of pique. In another telling, she accidentally dropped a thin slice into a boiling pot of fat while peeling potatoes, retrieved it with a fork, and had her eureka moment.
Crum and Wicks weren’t the only posthumous claimants to the title. In his 1907 obituaries, Hiram S. Thomas was widely credited as “the inventor of Saratoga chips.” A prominent Black hotelier, referred to in one obituary as “next to Booker T. Washington" as one of the most well-known African Americans in the region, Thomas ran Moon’s Lake House for about a decade. However, that was in the 1890s, some 40 years after the Crum and/or Wicks discovery—and a good decade after the chips had become commercially available far beyond Saratoga.
Still another notable to receive credit in her obituaries was Emeline Jones. Renowned as a cook to the rich, famous and powerful in New York City and Washington, D.C., Jones, who was also Black, had worked briefly at Moon’s Lake House under Hiram S. Thomas earlier in her career. So, while it’s possible she learned to make potato chips there, she seems unlikely to have been present at the creation.
A more recent theory, apparently first advanced by Stiles, is that the Lake House’s potato chips actually precede even Crum and Wicks. Another New York Herald article, this one from 1849, notes the “fame of ‘Eliza, the cook,’ for crisping potatoes,” adding that “scores of people visit the lake and carry away specimens of the vegetable, as prepared by her, as curiosities.” Regrettably, Eliza’s last name and anything else about her seems lost to history.
Whether or not anybody at Saratoga Springs actually invented potato chips, the town certainly did a lot to popularize them. For years, they were known as Saratoga chips, and they are still sold under that name today.
At first, Saratoga chips were a gourmet delicacy served at fine hotels and restaurants. Diners at the Cadillac Hotel in Detroit could enjoy them with chicken salad in aspic. Passengers aboard the luxury liner R.M.S. Berengaria nibbled theirs alongside roast pheasant. Wealthy families whose cooks had mastered the art of chip making could buy a sterling silver Saratoga chip server at Tiffany for dishing them out with elegance.
Usually handmade and often served in wax paper bags, freshly fried snack chips tended to have a short shelf life, making them a hyperlocal, highly fragmented business proposition. It wasn’t until the 1930s that two companies, Lay’s and Fritos—the latter of which made their chips from corn, not potato—began their rise to becoming national brands mass-producing and distributing the popular snack foods. In time, chips became a universal treat, with potato chips alone becoming a $10 billion industry in the U.S.
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Was a British Doctor the Real Inventor?
But if potato chips weren’t born in Saratoga, where did they come from? Food historians suggest they go back to at least 1817, when an English doctor named William Kitchiner came out with the first edition of his pioneering cookbook, The Cook’s Oracle, published in both British and American editions. One recipe, “potatoes fried in slices,” sounds remarkably like today’s potato chip. Later revisions referred to the dish as “potatoes fried in slices or shavings.”
While Kitchiner may have been the first to publish a potato chip recipe, that doesn’t mean he invented it. In fact, given the ubiquity of the potato—long a staple throughout the world—it seems likely that the potato chip has been invented and reinvented by countless cooks, possibly for centuries.
For serious snackers, the question of who actually invented the chip may be beside the point, anyway. The important thing is that somebody did.