George Speck was born in 1822 of a Native-American mother1 and an African-American father. His father was a jockey, and when he grew up he took his father's professional name, Crum. Following early career moves as a tracker and trader, Crum finally found his niche in life as a chef. George Crum was what his countrymen would call 'ornery' and in a fit of pique one evening in 1853, he invented what could arguably be called the Western world's favourite snack.
Crum was a chef at Cary Moon's restaurant in Saratoga, New York. He had a bit of a reputation for being bad-tempered and diners were generally loathe to return food to his kitchen because of this. It was rumoured that, should a meal be returned to Crum, it might have been replaced with a better meal but was just as likely to be sent back even more inedible than it had been in the first instance. Diners saw Crum as a challenge and while some would storm out in protest at his behaviour, others would try to test his patience.
One evening, a particularly hard-to-please customer returned his French fries because they were too thick. Crum tried again to prepare the perfect chip and it was again returned as it was too thick. When the meal had been sent back to the kitchen for the third time, Crum decided to cut the potatoes so thinly that they couldn't be pierced by a fork and to overdo the seasoning just enough to choke the diner. To Crum's surprise, the diner was delighted and ate the lot.
George Crum had presented the world with the first potato crisps. They were put on the menu of Moon's Lake House and soon became a local delicacy known as Saratoga Chips2. Before very long, they were being served at all the best restaurants.
Movers and Shakers
Some years later, William Tappendon took up the marketing and manufacture of crisps and is credited with taking crisps out of the restaurant and into the grocery shop. In 1895, Tappendon first made his crisps in the kitchen, but due to demand turned his barn into the world's first potato-crisp factory. Tappendon sold his crisps to local grocers in Cleveland, Ohio, and crisps were on the move.
By the mid-1920s, crisps were turning into big business in the United States. In the early years, they were sold in paper bags from large bins in the grocery stores. The crisps at the bottom of the bin weren't usually very crispy at all by the time the grocer sold them, a problem solved by the next great innovation. In 1926, Laura Scudder, who worked in her family's crisp business, hit on the idea of selling the crisps in sealed bags. Scudder had her staff iron waxed-paper sheets into the shape of a bag and, ingeniously, iron-seal the top of the bags when full. Now we really do have a packet of crisps.
The first British potato crisps were manufactured by a man called Carter in 1913. He reputedly discovered them in France, not the US, but they weren't available to the masses until Smiths Potato Crisps Company Ltd formed in 1920. Smiths was another family business. Mrs Smith washed, cut and fried the potatoes in the couple's North London garage. Frank Smith packaged them in greaseproof paper bags. The crisps were then sold from his pony and trap around London. He would also include a twist of salt3 for flavouring. Crisps were so popular that within a year, the couple had to move to larger premises and employ 12 staff members
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