Saratogian George Crum, Inventor of the Potato Chip
February is Black History Month, the roots of which were established in 1920 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second black person to graduate from Harvard University and the son of former slaves. Woodson had co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 with Rev. Jesse E. Moorland with the joint goal of researching and bringing awareness to the important role of black people in history and educating black people about their background to give them a sense of pride in their race. In 1920, Woodson decided to create Negro History and Literature Week, which changed to Negro History Week in 1926, Black History Week in the 1970s, and a month-long observance in 1976. Black History Month played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and during the Black Power Movement of the 1970s, and today it is celebrated by the whole nation as a time to recognize the achievements of African-Americans throughout history.
The whole world certainly owes a lot to an African-American chef named George Crum, who invented what became one of the most popular snack foods in the world: the potato chip.
Born as George Speck in 1822 in Saratoga Lake, New York, Crum was the son of a Native-American mother and an African-American father. As an adult he adopted the professional name “Crum,” a name his father also used in his career as a jockey. In his early years, Crum worked as a trapper and a mountain guide in the Adirondacks before he realized his talents with food.
In the summer of 1853, Crum was working as a chef at the Moon Lake Lodge, an elegant resort in Saratoga Springs. As the story goes, Crum was cooking in the kitchen one day when a guest sent back the restaurant’s popular French-fried potatoes complaining that they were too thick. An angry Crum grabbed a new potato and sliced it spitefully thin, so thin that the guest would not be able to eat it with a fork. Fried in oil and salted, these crispy potato slices were sent out. And the guest loved them! Crum had stumbled upon what would become America’s favorite snack.
Although the story is more legend than historical fact, as Crum never patented the invention, he was surely involved in the potato chip’s discovery. Other accounts give his sister Kate, who worked with him at the Moon Lake Lodge, some of the credit. Kate has been said to have dropped a sliced potato in hot oil by accident, which George then tasted, discovering the potato chip by chance. However it happened, from that day forward potato chips began to appear on the Moon Lake Lodge’s menu as a house specialty.
In 1860 George Crum opened his own restaurant on Malta Avenue in Saratoga Lake featuring potato chips in baskets on each table. The restaurant was successful for 30 years, serving several rich and famous guests of Saratoga. Crum closed his establishment in 1890, and died 14 years later at the age of 92. His fame as a successful inventor and businessman is a legacy in African-American history.
Others caught on to the possibilities of Crum’s potato chip very quickly. In 1895 William Tappendon was the first to try to mass-market potato chips, producing them in a makeshift factory behind his house and selling them to local grocery stores. Many others followed his lead.
The invention of the mechanical potato peeler in the 1920s paved the way for potato chips to become the mass-produced snack food it is today. Laura Scudder’s idea to put potato chips in wax paper bags in 1926 allowed them to be sold in smaller quantities.
In 1932, Herman Lay of Nashville, Tennessee founded Lay’s Potato Chips. First produced in a factory in Atlanta, Georgia and peddled out of the back of his car, Lay’s eventually became the first successful national brand.
Crum’s discovery went on to have an exponential impact on the diets of all Americans. Today, potatoes are second in human consumption only to rice. Much of this has to do with the potato chip, which generates over $6 billion dollars in sales every year.
–Jessica Nicosia is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.
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