Culinary Curiosities: The Salty History of the Potato Chip
Public Service Announcement for dedicated snackers: National Potato Chip Day is March 14. OK, this holiday may have been created for marketing purposes, but people do love their chips. The average American eats 4 to 6 pounds a year (put me at the 6 pound end). And according to Statista.com, nearly 280 million Americans ate potato chips in 2018. That’s about 85 percent of the population! The industry keeps growing, at home and abroad. By 2022 it’s possible the potato chip market will be worth $40 billion worldwide.
That’s a lot of cash, given the crispy spud’s humble origins. Legend has it that George Crum, a chef of Native American and African American heritage, invented potato chips in a fit of pique. In 1853 he was working at the Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs Resort, a holiday retreat for the wealthy. When a picky diner kept sending back his French fries, complaining they were too thick and soggy, an enraged Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible and fried them until they were hard and crisp. He doused them with salt for good measure and sent them out. Much to his surprise, the finicky customer loved them. Crum’s “Saratoga Chips,” as they came to be known, became a much loved staple at his restaurant and many others.
As satisfying as this story is, it’s probably more folklore than fact. Potatoes fried in fat, to varying degrees of crispness, have been part of our diet for many years. One of the earliest recipes is found in the 1822 edition of Dr. William Kitchener’s cookbook, “The Cook’s Oracle.” He describes “potatoes fried in slices or shavings,” that are cooked in hot lard, drained in a sieve, and sprinkled with salt. Still, it’s wonderful to think of George Crum creating potato chips to silence a rich fusspot, who was rumored to be Cornelius Vanderbilt.
For a while potato chips were only sold in restaurants. Eventually they were available in grocery stores, sold in bulk, scooped from a bin or barrel to be eaten at home. As a result, chips were often stale and broken. Enter Laura Scudder, California potato chip maker and entrepreneur, who changed chip packaging for the better. Scudder ironed sheets of waxed paper together to form a bag that kept her product tasty and whole. She also was the first to put a freshness date on the bags. Today’s bags are freshness sealed and filled with nitrogen gas to prevent the potato chips from oxidizing.
Flavored chips were introduced in the 1950s. Americans still love the plain variety the best, followed by sour cream and onion and barbecue. Around the globe, flavors vary by local preference. Currywurst and paprika are popular in Germany. Canadians like ketchup flavor. No surprise that seaweed and wasabi are favorites in Japan. But my vote is for Zapp’s New Orleans Voodoo Chips. The voodoo flavor was a happy accident. According to Zapp’s, an employee dropped a pallet of spices and, during clean up, tasted the impromptu blend. “Voodoo” was the result. Ron Zappe, founder of Zapp’s, once said the hard to describe flavor was akin to a good gumbo, which has a little bit of everything in it.
Chip manufacturers, looking to the future, have even more than flavor mixes in development. Looking for something beyond the ordinary? Try Lori’s THC-infused potato chips by Seattle-based Craft Elixirs. THC, to be clear, stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, so keep these chips away from the kids, folks. And if the sparkle of salt isn’t enough, try Koikeya Pride Potato Kanazawa Gold Leaf Salt Chips. These luxury chips are studded with edible gold leaf. What a way to make your party posh.
On March 14, celebrate by thinking outside the bag. Try putting potato chips in your morning omelet. Or move them from the side of your plate and into your grilled cheese sandwich (or make it a gooey ham-and-cheese-and-chips). Don’t count out dessert: potato chips in cookies and chocolate truffles add a savory, salty crunch that will make your mouth water. So many things to try on National Potato Chip Day. But you might want to save a few bags for March 23—that’s National Dip Day.
Julie Brown-Micko was raised on sugar cereals and lots of hamburger casseroles, but survived and thrived in a Le Cordon Bleu culinary program. A sometime writer, candy maker and pastry chef, she’s happiest combining her love of food and writing. Her work has appeared in restaurants such as The Bayport Cookery and publications such as Minnesota Monthly and Foodservice News.