In his lifetime, George Crum was renowned as a skilled hunter, a successful businessman and a master chef to the nation’s elite. He probably never imagined that he would be remembered as the inventor of one of America’s most popular snack foods.
Crum was born George Speck in Ballston Spa sometime in 1822. His father, Abe Speck, was a mixed-race jockey who used “Crum” as his racing name. George’s mother was Native American, and George was often described as “Indian” in appearance. By the 1850s, he had become an expert hunter and fisherman. He worked as a hunting guide for the growing tourist trade in the Adirondack region, and often cooked meals for camping tourists as well. He learned to cook from a French hunting companion and from Pete Francis, a successful African-American chef in Ballston Spa. Crum quickly gained a reputation for catching the best game and fish and cooking them better than anyone.
In 1853, Crum became the chef at Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake. He was praised for his preparation of fish and fowl dishes, but it was while preparing a side dish that Crum made culinary history by inventing “Saratoga chips” – today’s potato chips.
Historians have shown that earlier cookbook writers had the basic idea for a potato chip, but America’s love for the salty snack began with the widespread fame of Saratoga chips from Moon’s Lake House. There are different stories of how Saratoga chips were born. In one version, Crum’s sister and assistant-cook Kate accidentally dropped a thin potato slice into a pan of deep fat. In the more popular account, Crum himself was provoked by a diner’s complaint that an order of French fries had been too thick, soggy and bland. He angrily prepared what the customer seemed to want: potatoes sliced as thinly as possible, cooked to a crisp and heavily salted. Trying one, Crum realized that his practical joke had turned out delicious. The customer agreed.
Crum’s Saratoga chips soon became a house specialty at Moon’s, whose wealthy clientele made them a fashionable snack. By the end of the 19th century, recipes for Saratoga chips or “Saratoga potatoes” were commonplace in American cookbooks. The chips were a popular side dish at Crum’s own restaurant, which he opened in 1860. Crum kept the spring behind his farmhouse well stocked with trout and bass, and was nearly as famous for his “Saratoga bass” as for his potato chips. Presidents and millionaires dined at Crum’s, but Crum always insisted that even the wealthiest diners had to wait their turn before being served. Many said they would wait all night for the privilege of enjoying his cuisine.
Mass-producing potato chips never occurred to Crum – the technology didn’t exist until the 20th century. Nevertheless, George Crum was hailed as a success when he died in 1914. He had succeeded in one of the few trades that racial minorities in his time were allowed to compete in with whites. He would become an even greater success in retrospect once potato chips evolved from an elite delicacy to a great American snack for everyone.