George Crum Took French Fries to Another Level

Learning Black History Year Round

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George Crum. Public domain photo.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy steamship owner, sat in the dining room of Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., waiting for his meal. It was the summer of 1853. In the kitchen was George Crum (1824–1914), the establishment’s cook.

The meal being prepared was likely woodcock or partridge from the restaurant’s grounds, served with French fries. But when the dish was served, Vanderbilt refused it. “The French fries are too thick,” he lamented.

This angered Crum, so much so that he would prepare the potatoes again, but this time cut into slices as thin as he could make them. He then dipped them in the hot oil, frying them to a crisp. To add insult to Vanderbilt’s meal, Crum places the browned and brittle rounds on the plate before sending it to the table. To Crum’s surprise, Vanderbilt was “thrilled with the novel snack.” Harriet Moon, who owned the restaurant, soon declared Crum’s dish a regular part of the menu.

In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant, Crum’s Place. There, millionaires like Vanderbilt would stand in line for hours for what Crum dubbed “Saratoga Chips.”

Born George Speck in Saratoga Lake, N.Y., Crum was the son of an African American father and Native American mother (the Huron tribe). “Crum” was the name his father used in his career as a jockey.

During his youth, Crum worked as a guide in the Adirondack Mountains and as an Indian trader. Over time, he began to realize his passion for cooking and focused on working as a chef. Unfortunately, Crum never patented Saratoga Chips, and never distributed them outside of New England. This opened the door for others to claim to have been the snack’s original inventor, fueling the debate regarding that person’s true identity.

In 1895, William Tappendon began to make the first attempt to place potato chips on local grocery store shelves. In 1921 The Hanover Home Potato Chip Company was established.

Soon grocers in numerous areas around the United States were selling chips in bulk. In 1926, Laura Scudder began putting potato chips into wax paper bags, giving birth to the bag-of-chips concept. In 1932, Herman Lay founded Lay’s in Nashville, Tenn., which led to phenomenal success not only for him, but also other potato-chip makers.

Historian Dave Mitchell researched those credited with the creation of the potato chip, including Eliza, Vanderbilt, both of the Moons, Crum’s sister Kate Wicks, restaurant manager Hiram Thomas, and various Lake House cooks. His investigation included the possibility that the potato chip was not invented in Saratoga at all (though it certainly earned its popularity there). The potato chip’s true origin, Mitchell concluded, “will probably never be known.”

Nevertheless, potato chips were on their way to becoming an international phenomenon and the perfect item for 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.

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