The potato chip is one of the US’s favorite snack foods. The snack's invention is an interesting legend, but spin-off potato chip inventions are just as interesting.
The potato chip was invented in Saratoga Lake, NY. Its inventor was George Speck—the son of an African American father and Native American mother. Later he professionally adopted the last name Crum. He was a gifted, although surly, cook working as the chef of the Moon Lake Lodge Resort in 1853. One dish on the menu was French-fried potatoes, which are prepared by cutting potatoes lengthwise and lightly frying them.
According to legend, one day a customer repeatedly sent his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were too thick and soft. Crum’s solution was to thinly slice the potatoes and fry them in grease till brown. The customer loved the crisps and soon other guests began asking for them as well. Soon Crum's "Saratoga Chips" became one of lodge's most popular treats.
Crum’s success prompted him to open his own restaurant in 1860, called "Crumbs House," near Saratoga Lake, where he catered to an upscale clientele. The restaurant promoted a basket of potato chips on every table. Their popularity spread throughout the US under the name “Saratoga Chips” and were first sold in grocery stores in 1895 by William Tappendonby in Cleveland, OH.
The next major potato chip related invention came from California. Potato chips were commonly stored in cracker barrels or glass display cases and served to customers in paper bags. This typically meant that chips had a short shelf life. In 1926 Laura Scudder was working in her family’s chip business in Monterey Park, CA, when she more closely examined the properties of wax paper and had an idea. She asked her employees to hand-iron sheets of wax paper into bags, fill the bags with potato chips, and seal the tops with a warm iron. She found that her wax paper bags kept the chips fresher longer, more protected from contaminants, and less likely to be crushed. This invention revolutionized the potato chip industry. Furthermore, Scudder is credited with being the first to imprint a freshness date on food products.
Another significant potato chip innovation came from Ireland. Potato chips were sold with no flavoring but each bag included a packet of salt you could pour over them. Joseph “Spud” Murphy owned the Tayto potato chip company in Dublin, Ireland and in 1954 he asked one of his employees to experiment with inventing a way to flavor potato chips. Employee Seamus Burke invented the cheese and onion flavor still widely popular in Britain to this day. Through clever marketing Murphy popularized flavored potato chips worldwide.
Potato chip companies continue to invent. In 2009 Frito-Lay infamously invented a “green bag” for its Sun Chips that was made from plant material and 100% compostable in 14 weeks. Also, different cultures invent different potato chip flavors. In the US, flavors like barbeque and ranch are common, but in places with different palates, other flavors have been invented. For example paprika chips are popular in Germany, mint are popular in India, jamόn (ham) is popular in Spain, and prawn cocktail is popular in the U.K. As with many things, one invention leads to many innovations. I’m sure that George Crum never envisioned the inventions that would be sparked by serving a customer an overdone order of French fried potatoes.