Celebrating Black History: The Great Potato Chip Mystery

Was the potato chip invented by Ballston Spa’s George “Crum” Speck? Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. It depends on who you believe.

moons lake houseAccording to many sources, Crum invented the potato chip in 1853 while working as a chef at Moon’s Lake House on Kaydeross Road in Saratoga. Born in 1828, he was the son of a Native American mother and an African American father. At some point, George Speck began using the surname Crum, the name his father used when competing as a jockey.

Crum was an excellent chef who was easily offended when someone criticized his food. When an unsatisfied customer sent food back to the kitchen, he often prepared something unappetizing and had it sent out to the unsuspecting customer. As the story goes, a restaurant patron—some say it was railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt—complained that his potatoes were too thick and not crisp enough. Crum reacted to the criticism by creating what he thought would be the worst potatoes the man had ever eaten. He sliced them extremely thin, fried them until they were nearly burnt, and doused them in salt. The overcooked potatoes were delivered to the customer, and instead of reacting with anger, the man gobbled them up and ordered more. From that day forward, Saratoga Chips became a popular side dish at Moon’s.

In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant, Crum’s Place, at 793 Malta Avenue. He operated the restaurant until 1890. A historical marker declaring Crum as the inventor of the potato chip sits in the front yard of a home located on the property once owned by Crum. It is believed that an abandoned building that can be found at the rear of the property was once home to Crum’s Place. (The building sits on private property and trespassing is not permitted.)

Historical marker designating location of Crum's Place

A historical marker sits in front of a home on Malta Avenue. Photo by C. Graf/Ballston Journal.

Crum died in 1914, and his obituary credited him with the invention of the potato chip. He is buried in Malta Ridge Cemetery. According to amateur historian Dan Mitchell, “By the time he died in 1914 he had hosted Presidents, Senators, and the rich and famous at the restaurant he built, and his skills as a hunter fisherman and guide were almost as prized as his prowess as a chef.” Mitchell has an entire blog dedicated to Crum and the invention of the potato chip.

Meanwhile, the obituary of Katie Speck Wicks (Crum’s sister or sister-in-law) said it was she who invented the potato chip. Wicks worked with Crum in the kitchen at Moon’s Lake House. According to her version of the story, she was peeling potatoes when she accidentally dropped a slice of potato into the hot oil she was using to make crullers.  Crum fished it out of the oil, tasted it, and discovered that it was delicious.  After that, potato chips became a popular menu item at Moon’s.

george crum chipsSo who invented the potato chip? Was it Crum or was it Wicks? Or was it someone else entirely? When Saratoga Springs historian Mary Ann Fitzgerald was interviewed in 2007 for a New York Times article, she said, “What do I really think is the truth? I think that there are more people involved than we realize. But this story comes down to us through oral history. There were no cameras recording it. So as much as I would like Kate to be the winner, it does sound like something George would have done.”

Until someone proves otherwise, it is likely that the name George Crum and the city of Saratoga Springs will forever be associated with the invention of America’s favorite salty snack.

‘Remember When’ is a history blog capturing the memories and images from Ballston Spa, Milton, Malta and the surrounding area. Have a question or something to share? Email features contributor Chris Graf, [email protected]


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