Who was George Crum?
George Crum was an American chef, best known as the possible creator of potato chips. Born and raised in Saratoga County, New York, George had an African–American/Native American lineage. As a youngster who was deprived of a proper education, George began working as a guide on the Adirondack Mountains in his teenage years. During his mid-20s, he discovered that he had an inclination toward culinary arts and thus began working as a chef at ‘Moon’s Lake House’ in Saratoga Springs, New York. French fries were the speciality of the restaurant. As the story goes, George was known for making French fries but failed to impress a particular customer who sent the fries back, saying they were cut too thickly. Agitated, George then cut the potatoes in extremely thin circular slices and fried them. When the customer tasted the fries, he loved them. This is widely known to be the story behind the creation of potato chips that became a worldwide phenomenon over time. However, its authenticity remains debated. In 1860, George opened his own restaurant, ‘Crums House,’ in Saratoga Lake‘. Many VIPs frequented the restaurant. Quite naturally, it was known for its delicious potato chips. George shut down his restaurant in 1890. He died in 1914, at the age of 90.
Childhood & Early Life
George Crum was born George Speck, on July 15, 1824, in Saratoga County, New York City, USA, to Abraham and Diana Tull. His father was of African–American descent, while his mother was a native Indian belonging to the Huron race. George grew up with his sister, Katie, who also went on to become a somewhat popular chef, better known by the name “Aunt Katie.”
The family grew up amidst difficult financial circumstances. In addition, life was, in any case, not easy for people from the mixed races back then in the USA, and hence, George was deprived of quality education. However, he was a smart young man and thus began working when he was still quite young.
He worked as a wild-animal trapper and also as a tour guide at the Adirondack Mountains. However, he became bored of it soon. He knew that his true calling lay somewhere else. He loved cooking and tried to give it a shot. He thus began working as a chef at ‘Moon’s Lake House’ in New York City.
The restaurant was quite famous with rich tourists who came all the way from Manhattan and the nearby cities to spend their holidays with their children.
George’s father was jockey who raced in the derbies and was known by the nickname “Crum.” George later adopted his father’s nickname as his last name. Another story claims that George got his last name when a customer forgot his real name and accidentally called him “Crum.” George liked the sound of it and adopted it as his official nickname.
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Career & Creation of Potato Chips
His sister, Katie, also worked as a chef. Apart from ‘Moon’s Lake House,’ George also worked at the ‘Sans Souci Hotel’ located in Ballston Spa. He worked there with his sister and with the famous Mohawk Indian cook named Pete Francis.
However, George’s real breakthrough came while he was working at ‘Moon’s Lake House.’ The restaurant was known for its French fries. However, when one particular customer who came to the restaurant in the summer of 1853 ordered French fries, he did not like the fries George cooked for him. He said that they were too thickly cut and that he wanted them to be thinner.
Crum took it on his ego, and being a highly sarcastic man, he sliced the potatoes extremely thin and fried them in grease. After seasoning them with salt, he sent them to the customer’s table. He expected a response but definitely not any appreciation. Strangely, the customer loved it. This is widely known as the story behind the creation of potato chips that went on to become a worldwide phenomenon.
The restaurant became extremely popular as George’s popularity soared. He decided to open his own restaurant in 1860 and named it ‘Crums House.’ One of the specialities of the restaurant was, of course, its unique offering of potato chips. George put a basket of potato chips on every table.
Despite being credited as the founder of the chips many times, George never claimed to be the creator of potato chips. He never even patented it. This made many snack food companies all over the country create their own recipes of potato chips. Thus, potato chips became widely popular.
‘Crums House’ soon became a hugely successful venture. His customer base increased. While his potato chips were the key attraction, George’s culinary skills, in general, were said to be the biggest reason behind his popularity.
What also impressed his customer base was the fact that George played no favorites in his restaurant. From a millionaire to a daily-wage earner, everyone was expected to wait for their turn and nobody received special treatment. George believed it was the Indian in him that treated all his customers equally, without any bias.
Potato Chips Debates
Although many claim that George had created potato chips, there were many cookbooks in those times that contained a very similar recipe. There have also been claims that George had started cooking potato chips merely as an accident. However, then again, George never took the credit of being the creator of potato chips.
The ‘New-York Tribune’ ran an article on George’s restaurant in December 1891, but there was no mention of his potato chips. George’s commissioned biography published in 1893 also had no mention of the famed chips. However, one of his obituaries credited him to be an inventor of the “Saratoga Chips.”
In spite of all the debate about him being the creator of the chips, nobody denied the fact that he had popularized potato chips and had brought them into the mainstream culinary industry. Cary Moon, the owner of ‘Moon’s Lake House,’ where George had invented the recipe, tried taking the credit for the creation of the chips.
The ‘St. Regis Paper Company,’ which specialized in manufacturing packaging for chips, published an ad in ‘Time’ and ‘Fortune’ magazines in the 1970s, featuring George and his story of the creation of potato chips.
In 1983, an article published in the magazine ‘Western Folklore’ claimed that potato chips, also known as “Saratoga Chips,” had been first created in Saratoga, New York.
The story about how George had sarcastically made potato chips after a customer sent back the French fries served to him has also been under scrutiny. The website ‘Snopes’ claimed that if there indeed was such a customer, he had remained obscure. It also claimed that there had been no evidence about anything that had transpired in the restaurant that day.
Personal Life & Death
George Crum had married twice. His first wife was Elizabeth J, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.
He married his second wife, Hester Esther Bennett, in 1860.
There have been debates about his birth year. Many claim that he was born in 1828, while many other resources state that he was born in 1824.
He died on July 22, 1914, in Saratoga County, New York.