The Story of George Crum, Inventor of the Potato Chip

George Crum Portrait. Public Domain

George Crum (born George Speck; July 15, 1824 – July 22, 1914) was a renowned chef who worked at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York during the mid-1800s. According to culinary legend, Crum invented the potato chip during his work at the restaurant.

The Potato Chip Legend 

George Speck was born to parents Abraham Speck and Diana Tull on July 15, 1824. He grew up in upstate New York and was hired at Moon's Lake House in the 1850s.

Moon’s Lake House was a high-end restaurant that catered to wealthy Manhattan families when Speck was hired. A regular patron of the restaurant, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, frequently forgot Speck's given surname. Vanderbilt often asked waiters to relay various requests to “Crum,” thus giving Speck the name he is now known by. 

According to popular legend, the potato chip was invented when a picky customer (Vanderbilt himself, according to some reports) repeatedly sent back an order of French fries, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated with the customer’s demands, Crum sought revenge by slicing a batch of potatoes paper-thin, frying them to a crisp, and seasoning them with lots of salt. Surprisingly, the customer loved them. Soon enough, Crum and Moon's Lake House became well-known for their special “Saratoga chips.” 

Disputing the Legend 

A number of notable accounts have disputed the story of Crum's culinary innovation.

Recipes for frying thin potato slices had already been published in cookbooks by the early 1800s. Several reports on Crum himself, including a commissioned biography of the chef published in 1893 and his own obituary, were curiously missing any mention of potato chips whatsoever. 

Crum's sister, Kate Wicks, claimed to be the real inventor of the potato chip.

Wick’s obituary, published in The Saratogian in 1924, read, "A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102, and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips." This statement is supported by Wicks’ own recollections of the tale, which was published in several periodicals during her lifetime. Wicks explained that she had sliced off a sliver of potato that inadvertently fell into a hot frying pan. She let Crum taste it and his enthusiastic approval led to decision to serve the chips.

Crum's Legacy

Visitors came far and wide to Moon's Lake House for a taste of the famous Saratoga chips, sometimes even taking a 10-mile trip around the lake just to get to the restaurant. Cary Moon, the owner of Moon’s Lake House, later tried to claim credit for the invention and began producing and distributing potato chips in boxes. Once Crum opened his own restaurant in the 1860s, called Crum’s, he provided every table with a basket of chips. 

Crum’s chips remained a local delicacy until the 1920s, when a salesman and entrepreneur named Herman Lay began traveling throughout the south and introducing potato chips to different communities throughout the country.

At that point, Crum's legacy was overtaken by the mass production and distribution of potato chips on a national scale.

George Crum Fast Facts  

  • Given Name: George Speck
  • Known For: Chef and (according to legend) inventor of the potato chip
  • Born: July 15, 1824 in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA
  • Died: July 22, 1914 in Malta, New York, USA
  • Key Accomplishments: George Crum is credited with inventing potato chips when he sliced an order of French fries extra-thin to spite a demanding customer. The story has since been debunked as a myth, but Crum achieved success when he opened Crum's, a popular restaurant in Malta, New York. 

Sources

  • "George Crum Dies at Saratoga Lake," The (Saratoga Springs) Saratogian. July 27, 1914. 
  • "Another Claims Potato Chip Idea,” Glens Falls Post Star. August 4, 1932
  • Barrett Britten, Elizabeth [Jean McGregor]. Chronicles of Saratoga, Saratoga Springs, NY. Bradshaw 1947.
  • Bradley, Hugh. Such Was Saratoga. New York, 1940. 1940, 121-122.
  • Dearborn, R.F. Saratoga and How to See It. Albany, New York. 1871. 
  • Gruse, Doug. "Chipping Away at History." Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York. November 25, 2009
  • Kitchiner, William. The Cook’s Oracle; Containing Receipts for Plain Cookery, on the Most Economical Plan for Private Families. 4th ed. A. Constable and Co. of Edinburgh and London.
  • Lee, N.K.M. The Cook's Own Book: Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia. Boston, Munroe and Francis. New York, Charles E. Francis and David Felt. 1832.