Stateside, thinly sliced, deep fried, salted potato rounds are eaten cold and called chips, and long, thin potato wands, deep fried, salted and served hot, are fries. Canadians, and some Europeans, use the same nomenclature. But across the pond, in Ireland and England, cold rounds are called crisps and hot wands are called chips (you don’t order fish and fries in London). In other regions influenced by the Empire, like Australia, New Zealand, parts of the Caribbean and South Africa, crisps may be a blanket term for all potato products, while chips may refer to other kinds of savory snack products, like tortilla chips.
Some attribute the first potato chip to George Crum, a half black, half Native American cook at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York. On August 24, 1853, Crum was trying to appease a complaining diner who repeatedly returned his fried potatoes to the kitchen with the complaint that they were too thick and too soggy (some reports list this diner as Cornelius Vanderbilt). Annoyed, Crum finally sliced the potatoes paper thin, fried them until crisp (they couldn’t be eaten with a fork, and a gentleman of the day wouldn’t have used his fingers) and oversalted them. To his amazement, his cranky customer loved the crunchy chips, other diners requested them, and they soon became known as “Saratoga chips.” Crum’s culinary reputation rose and, by 1860, he had his own lakeside restaurant, Crum’s House.
Earlier claims to the invention of potato chips are from William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle (published in 1822 and a bestseller in both England and the United States), Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) and Alexis Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People (1845).
In the twentieth century, mass production brought potato chips from restaurant menus into homes. The Massachusetts-based Leominster Potato Chip Company, founded in 1908 and later renamed Tri-Sum Potato Chips, claims to be America’s first potato chip manufacturer. Ohio-based Mike-sell’s Potato Chip Company, founded in 1910, also calls itself “the oldest potato chip company in the United States.” In the 1950s, an Irish chip company called Tayto developed technology to add seasoning to potato chips during manufacture. Pandora’s box opened and potato chips flavored like bacon, barbecued ribs, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, jerk chicken, shrimp cocktail and Thai sweet chili, to name only a few, have glutted grocery shelves since.
Potato chips are a large part of the global snack food market: In 2005, they generated total revenues of US $16.49 billion, accounting for 35.5% of the savory snack market worldwide that year. Given such consumption, questions were raised about ways to make potato chips healthier. Originally deep-fried in lard and seasoned with salt, potatoes later were fried in other fats, including vegetable oil and trans fats. The latter were found to have such adverse health effects that they have been phased out by many manufacturers in the 21st century. Some fat-free chips used artificial, undigestible fat substitutes, including Olestra, that caused gastrointestinal problems and also were discontinued.
While the high levels of sodium present in most chips have been linked to high blood pressure and obesity, university researchers in London recently found that a “small bag of ready-salted chips” contained less salt that most major cereal brands sold in the UK. And while some companies have baked chips rather than frying them to reduce their fat content, often the baked chips have a higher salt content than the fried ones. This has led some writers to suggest that making you own chips is the only way to control salt.
Potatoes are not the only vegetable made into chips. In the United States corn chips also are popular, sweet potato chips are eaten in Japan, Korea and New Zealand, Indian “chips shops” feature carrot, plantain and yam chips, banana chips are offered in the Philippines and chips are made from casava in Kenya. There must be many more.