Who is George Crum?
George Crum (born George Speck, 1824–1914) was a renowned African American 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, in the 1850s, was hired at Moon's Lake House, a high-end restaurant that catered to wealthy Manhattan families. A regular patron of the restaurant, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, frequently forgot Speck's given surname. This led him to ask 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. Additionally, several reports on Crum himself—including a 1983 commissioned biography of the chef and his own obituary—curiously lacked any mention of potato chips whatsoever.
Meanwhile, 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 were published in several periodicals during her lifetime. Wicks explained that she had sliced off a sliver of potato and it inadvertently fell into a hot frying pan. She had let Crum taste it and his enthusiastic approval led to the decision to serve the chips.
Visitors came from 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 in Malta, New York, 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 (yes, that Lay) began traveling throughout the south and introducing potato chips to different communities. At that point, Crum's legacy was overtaken by the mass production and distribution of potato chips on a national scale.