In the summer there is nothing better after a hard day’s hot work than watching the sun coast down behind the hills and enjoying a cold mug of ale. This, along with a snack, and I am set to relax. Usually I nibble on a bowl of potato chips, thinking their salt helpfully replaces what I’ve lost and besides, they go well together, especially the kettle chip kind due to their crunchier taste.

This week for history’s sake we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the potato chip. It is an interesting story, probably some truth to it, perhaps now a legend, and goes something like this:

The year was 1853 and Moon’s Lake House in upstate New York’s Saratoga Springs was just serving dinner. On that fateful day, an angry customer had the temerity to complain that his French fries were “too thick and soggy” and “not salty enough.” It wasn’t sufficient that this protest stirred up a hornet’s nest in the kitchen but the client complaining was none other than Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt himself, the multi-millionaire railroad magnate.

The angered cook, George Clum, took this personally and set out to wreak culinary vengeance! Taking the returned potatoes he sliced them paper-thin, fried them to a singed crisped brown and salted the living daylights out of what was left. Taking the remnants into the dining room Clum unceremoniously dumped them into a plate in front of the astonished Vanderbilt. What happened next was the start of a brand new American industry. Instead of refusing them outright or sending them back again, the old man loved the new concoction! Suddenly “Saratoga Chips” became an instant success and the day usually given for this creation is August 24.

Recipes for frying thin-sliced potatoes had been around for a long time. One goes as far back as 1822 and is found in a cookbook by William Kitchner, “The Cook’s Oracle.” Nevertheless, the owner of Moon’s Lake House, Cary Moon, sensing a money maker when he saw one, rushed to claim credit for the invention and began mass-producing the chips. At first his restaurant served them in paper cones until he switched to the idea of packaging the chips in wax boxes. Needless to say they became wildly popular.

Soon everyone who visited Saratoga Springs was walking around crunching the crisp circlets right out of the box as though they were candy or peanuts. George Crum, the angry chef, eventually became famous, first at Moon’s and then at his own place, Crum’s Malta Restaurant he opened down the road.

For the next 50 years, Saratoga Chips remained associated with that city, much like the local inspired inventions of Philly cheese steak, Chicago pizza, and sourdough of San Francisco. In 1910, the Dayton, Ohio based Mikesells company found it more profitable to produce “Saratoga Chips” than the dried beef and sausage they originally started out with. Today they are still in business and bill themselves as the “oldest continuous operating potato chip company in the United States.” There is some rivalry however between them and the New England-based Tri-Sum Potato Chip Company which claims to be the first potato chip manufacturing enterprise in America, being founded two years prior to Mikesells.

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For many years potato chips were sold in the market in large tins – much like the blue Danish cookie metal cans. Sometimes your grocer would scoop them out of a storefront bin and stuff them into wax paper sacks for you to carry home. In the 1920s Laura Scudder, nurse, lawyer and most of all, entrepreneur, opened a restaurant across from the Mendocino County Courthouse and started having her workers take home sheets of wax paper to iron into the form of bags, which were filled with chips at her factory. This pioneering method reduced crumbling and kept the chips fresh and crispy longer. Her innovation, along with the invention of cellophane a few years later, allowed potato chips to become a mass-market product permitting shipment around the country. You can still find the Laura Scudder brand in California to this very day.

The manufacture of potato chips is an exciting process. It starts with the farmer growing a special potato that has an oblong shape for easy cutting. These “chipping” potatoes are high in starch and low in sugar so they stay fluffy on the inside and turn light brown when they’re fried on the outside.

After harvesting the potatoes are stored in special temperature-controlled environments that prevent the starch from turning into sugar by enzyme action. After the potatoes are delivered to the factory they are washed and a machine rubs off their skin and “eyes,” sorting them by size as they run along a conveyor belt. The potatoes move to a slicing machine and drop into a vat of vegetable oil at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. As the chips cook the water inside them turns to steam, with the result that the space that the water took up in the potato is now replaced by the oil. This makes the potato chip crisp.

In the last decade there has been an explosion of various flavored potato chips on the market with some grocery stores now dedicating an entire aisle for their display The idea of adding seasoning during manufacturer dates back to the 1950s when barbecue flavored chips first appeared from the Tayto company. But what is the distinction in a kettle cooked chip – the kind I like?

The difference between kettle chips and standard potato chips is in the actual cooking process. As described above, the basic chip is fried in a conveyer-belt-like continuous method — moving quickly from A to B. Kettle chips on the other hand are made in batches — dunk a bunch, take them out, dunk a bunch more. When a new load of potatoes is added to the kettle, it lowers the temperature of the oil, which means the chips take longer to cook, resulting in their irregular shape, darkened parts and thicker dimension.

In kettle chips the surface starch is not rinsed off, resulting in a texture called “a hard bite” allowing manufactures to sell the gourmet item at a premium.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.


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