Chip-per Cast Of Characters: A Brief History Of Potato Chips

THE POTATO CHIP (or crisp) may be among the world’s most popular snacks, but it didn’t get to that status without help. Its origins are shrouded in confusion: despite attempts to name one definitive ‘inventor’, variations on these thin-sliced, deep-fried discs had probably been attempted circa the 19th century amid the mining of the culinary delights of potatoes. Still, some potato chip stories (and personalities) are better known than others, and certainly propelled the fame of the spud-based snack far and wide. 

Here’s a look at the chipper cast of characters that played a part in the potato chip’s journey: 

William Kitchiner — An English optician, amateur musician and cooking enthusiast who became a household name in Britain and the United States courtesy his book, The Cook's Oracle; and Housekeeper's Manual, published in 1817. The bestseller is believed to have the first recorded recipe for a potato chip — or potato crisp as Kitchiner called it, being English — as we know it today. In the section for vegetables, Kitchiner describes “16 ways of dressing potatoes”, and between “potatoes boiled and broiled” and “potatoes fried whole” is the recipe for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings”. Kitchiner advises: 

“Peel large potatoes; slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils, and is still, put in the slices of potato, and keep moving them till they are crisp. Take them up, and lay them to drain on a sieve: send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.”

You can check out the other 15 methods Kitchiner described for cooking potatoes here.

Eliza the Cook — An 1849 report published in the New York Herald referred to a cook by the name of Eliza (no last name was ever printed, possibly because she was Black) who had mastered the technique of frying perfect potato chips. 

…while the fame of ‘Eliza, the cook’, for crisping potatoes has become so wide that she has frequent offers to take places of profit in the city, where her talents in this respect may be made effective. A queer way to build up a reputation, you will say; but it is nevertheless true, that ‘Eliza’s’ potato frying reputation is one of the prominent matters of remark at Saratoga, and scores of people visit the lake and carry away specimens of the vegetable, as prepared by her, as curiosities.  Ladies frequently pay her a handsome fee for the privilege of witnessing the mode of operation, pursued by her, so that they may instruct their cooks at home… and yet, Eliza is not proud of her reputation;  she is not puffed up with pride; she cooks on during the summer and has numerous standing offers to cook for nabobs of the city, at large wages, during the winter.

George Crum — Half-Native American and half-African American, Crum usually features at the centre of most potato chip invention stories. The lore goes that Crum was working at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, in the summer of 1853 when a particularly finicky diner sent back his plate of fries because they had been sliced too thick. In a fit of pique, Crum sliced potatoes as thinly as he could, then deep-fried them to a crisp and sent them out to the customer. The customer was thrilled, and thus a modern legend was born. Except, historians have contested this origin story over the years due to a lack of evidence for several of the key details. Whether he was the actual inventor or not, Crum certainly popularised the modern-day potato chip, selling them as “Saratoga Chips” from an eatery he later established.

Cornelius Vanderbilt — The other main character in the Crum-as-chip-inventor story. Seemingly, the American magnate who made a fortune with his railroad and shipping companies, was the diner who sent his fries back to the kitchen. Facts point to his having actually been vacationing in Europe during the timeline that Crum-as-chip-inventor story is said to have occurred. 

Kate Wicks — Yet another iteration of the Crum-as-chip-inventor story features a woman called Kate Wicks aka “Aunt Kate”. Wicks was Crum’s sister, and she is said to have been working alongside him, with a “pan of fat on the stove while making crullers and peeling potatoes at the same time”. 

“She chipped off a piece of potato which by the merest accident fell into the pan of fat.  She fisted it out with a fork and set it down upon a plate beside her on the table.

Crum came into the kitchen. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, as he picked up the chip and tasted it. ‘Hm, Hm, that’s good.  How did you make it?’

Aunt Kate described the accident.

‘That’s a good accident,’ said Crum.  ‘We’ll have plenty of these’

Crum tried them out. Demand for them grew like wildfire and he sold them at 15 and ten cents a bag,” an article on Saratoga history notes.

Laura Clough Scudder — Scudder was a California resident who set up a potato chip making company in 1926. She introduced an innovation that set her chips apart: they were sold in waxed paper bags. Previously, chips were only available in barrels or tins but the paper bags improved ease of packaging, storing and transporting — also making mass marketing a possibility. Scudder also ensured that dates of packing were printed on each of the bags to give customers an indication of freshness, a practice that shaped the food industry’s future. 

Al Capone — Capone, aka “Scarface”, is known more for his “empire of crime” in the 1920s in America. However, some accounts trace his impact on another area as well: commercially available potato chips. These accounts say that a former prizefighter-turned-snack maker named Leonard Japp introduced Capone to a modification of his favourite Saratoga Chips. Japp’s outfit fried potato chips in oil rather than lard, and switched to a continuous fryer, that made their snack a lot less greasy than others available at the time. Capone was blown away and asked Japp to supply chips to all of his speakeasies. (Japp was already delivering nuts and pretzels to them.)

Leonard Japp — Japp continued to be a giant of the potato chip industry for many more years, despite setbacks like the stock market crash of ‘29, and the anti-Japanese sentiment after Pearl Harbour, which forced him to rebrand as “Jays Foods”.

Herman Lay — Lay’s is probably the biggest potato chip brand in the world, with over 200 flavours localised for its many markets. But it all started with Herman Lay selling the snack out of the trunk of his car. Reportedly his sales saw a huge boost because of widespread rumours that potato chips were — wait for it — aphrodisiacs! Lay’s mergers with Frito (its biggest rival) and later Pepsico were what made the brand the undisputed market leader. 

Joe Murphy — Finding most packaged crisps insipid, the Irishman wondered if there was a way to season them, other than with salt. He came up with a process that helped produce cheese and onion crisps, thus introducing flavoured chips to the world. The company he founded in 1954 — Tayto — still offers a range of snacks.