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Meet the Black man – or woman – who “invented” potato chips

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Meet the Black man - or woman - who "invented" potato chips
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Born in 1824, George Crum (originally George Speck) “invented” and popularized potato chips by 1860 – or did he?

There’s been speculation and rumor over the years that Crum in fact didn’t invent the chips; it’s a hotly debated topic that most didn’t even know existed.

Siblings George Speck and Kate Speck Wicks were born to Abraham and Catherine Speck. They both grew up in upstate New York, and in 1853 George cooked for Cary Moon at Moon’s Lake House on well-to-do Saratoga Lake.  Kate would late join as a cook with her brother.

George Crum or Kate Wicks?

There are two sides to every story. Here’s both:

Theory#1: The potato chip was invented when a picky customer, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, repeatedly sent back an order of french fries, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated with his demands, George Crum sought revenge by slicing a batch of potatoes paper-thin, frying them to a crisp, and seasoning them with lots of salt.

Surprisingly, Vanderbilt enjoyed them and other guests began asking for them as well. Soon, Crum’s “Saratoga Chips” became one of the lodge’s most popular foods, attracting snackers from all over the city and country.

Theory #2: George’s sister, Kate Wicks, who also worked at Moon’s, accidentally dropped a chip of potato into the hot fat, and her brother fished it out and tasted it. After discovering it was a delight, he wanted to add it to the menu.

This may seem like no big deal, but Kate took it to the grave. Her 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.”

Crum never actually took credit for inventing them, yet during his time, he was the only known source of potato chips.

A regular patron of the restaurant, Cornelius Vanderbilt frequently forgot George’s surname. According to legend, Vanderbilt often referred to George as “Crum” instead of Speck. But just like soul food, George took the insult and crafted it into something he could make greater. Allegedly.

And the rest is Black History.

By 1860, George Crum opened his own restaurant near Saratoga Lake where he catered to an upscale clientele. One of the restaurant’s attractions was a basket of potato chips placed on every table.

Crum never patented or attempted to widely distribute his potato chips. Crum closed his restaurant in 1890. He died on July 22, 1914 at the age of 90.

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