George Crum (born George Speck; (c. 1828 – July 22, 1914) was a mixed-race Native American trapper and guide in the Adirondacks, who became renowned for his culinary skills after becoming a cook and restaurant owner in Saratoga Springs, New York. By 1860 he owned Crum's House, a popular lakeside restaurant.
By the early 20th century, Crum was credited in some popular accounts as having developed potato chips, but the story became most popular after a 1973 advertising campaign by St. Regis Paper Company in which he was featured. Neither an 1891 feature article about Crum, nor his 1914 obituary, mentions potato chips at all.
He was born George Speck in Malta, New York, south of Saratoga; his mother was a Native American Huron and his father was of mixed race, who worked as a jockey. When he got older, George Speck adopted his father's racing surname, "Crum". (A 1927 source said that the younger Crum was part Stockbridge Indian, ethnic Spanish and German, and "looked Indian".) George had a sister Katie. Learning the area as a child, George Crum later worked as a trapper and an Adirondack hunting guide.
Like many other area residents, Crum worked at the Adirondack resorts, where he discovered his culinary skills. He became a cook at Cary Moon's Lake Lodge in Saratoga, noted as an expensive restaurant at a time when wealthy families from Manhattan and other areas were building summer "camps" in the area. Crum became known for his skills as a chef.
According to a 1983 article in Western Folklore, in several popular culture versions, potato chips were said to have originated in Saratoga Springs, New York. A popular variant featuring Crum said that a customer complained that his french fries were too thick, so the chef kept slicing them thinner, then fried them to a crisp, and seasoned them heavily with salt. He expected the customer to dislike them, but the man praised them highly. The chips became popular and subsequently known as "Saratoga chips" or "potato crunches".
Crum's purported "invention" of potato chips became most firmly set after a 1973 advertising campaign by the St. Regis Paper Company, which manufactured packaging for chips. A large ad featuring Crum and his "story" was published in the national magazines, Fortune and Time. It was in the latter 1970s that the variant of the story featuring Vanderbilt became popular because of the interest in his wealth and name, and evidence suggests the source was advertising agencies for the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association.
In 1860 Crum opened Crum's House, his own lakeside restaurant; according to popular accounts, he used profits made selling his chips, and was said to include a basket of chips on every table. The story about Crum and the potato chips became more widely known after the 1930s, and is featured in a 1940 history of Saratoga by Hugh Bradley. Fox and Banner said that Bradley had cited an 1885 article in the Hotel Gazette about Crum and the potato chips. But, the version featuring Crum and his famous customer, identified in a 1973 version as the prominent railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, was created by advertising agencies for a national snack food association.
The New York Tribune did a feature article on "Crum's: The Famous Eating House on Saratoga Lake" in December 1891, but mentioned nothing about potato chips. Neither did Crum's commissioned biography, published in 1893, nor did his 1914 obituary in a local paper. At one time, stories circulated that Crum's sister, Katie Speck Wicks, or Moon's wife Harriet was responsible for the dish, but Bradley explicitly rejected these versions in his 1940 history of Saratoga.
Versions of fried potato slices were published in several cookbooks decades before Crum became a chef. In 1832, a recipe for fried potato "shavings" was included in a United States cookbook derived from an earlier English collection. Sliced potatoes cooked in hot oil and served with salt was a common dish before Crum's time. William Kitchiner's The Cook's Oracle (1822), also included techniques for such a dish. Similarly, N.K.M. Lee's cookbook, The Cook's Own Book (1832), has a recipe that is very similar to Kitchiner's. In later years, the popular Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping (1877) by Estelle Woods Wilcox, who was based in Indiana, was sold nationally and included a recipe for similar chips.
The 21st-century Snopes website writes that Crum's customer, if he existed, was more likely an obscure one. An early source for the story identifies Vanderbilt as a regular customer of Crum's, but says nothing about his role in the potato chips.[page needed][page needed]
Crum was reportedly married five times, and his wives, children and extended family were known to work at his restaurant. After his death, he was buried in a cemetery in Malta Ridge, New York.
- Hugh Bradley, Such Was Saratoga, New York: 1940
- Chuck D'Imperio, Great Graves of Upstate New York, iUniverse, 2009, pp. 87-89
- William S. Fox and Mae G. Banner, Topics and Comments: "Social and Economic Contexts of Folklore Variants: The Case of Potato Chip Legends", Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society), Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 114-126, accessed 20 June 2013
- Inventor of the Week: George Crum", MIT, 2006, accessed 20 June 2013
- "Early Lake Houses Saratoga, New York", from Reminiscences of Saratoga, compiled by Cornelius E. Durkee, reprinted by The Saratogian 1927-28
- "George Crum Dies at Saratoga Lake", The (Saratoga Springs) Saratogian, 27 July 1914
- "Civil War Recipes and Food History - The Potato During the Civil War" , Civil War Interactive website
- Kitchiner, Dr. William, 1822. The Cook’s Oracle; Containing Receipts for Plain Cookery, on the Most Economical Plan for Private Families: Also the Art of Composing the Most Simple and Most Highly Finished Broths, Gravies, Soups, Sauces, Store Sauces, and Flavouring Essences; the Quantity of each Article is Accurately Stated by Weight and Measure; the Whole Being the Result of Actual Experiments Instituted in the Kitchen of a Physician, 4th ed. A. Constable and Co. of Edinburgh and London, 464 pp. (See p. 208 for potato chip recipe. This is identified as the first American edition.)
- Lee, N.K.M. (A Boston Housekeeper), 1832. The Cook's Own Book: Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia: Comprehending All Valuable Receipts For Cooking Meat, Fish, And Fowl, And Composing Every Kind Of Soup, Gravy, Pastry, Preserves, Essences, &c. That Have Been Published Or Invented During The Last Twenty Years. Particularly The Very Best Of Those In The Cook's Oracle, Cook's Dictionary, And Other Systems Of Domestic Economy.Diamond Mb With Numerous Original Receipts, And a Complete System of Confectionery, Boston: Munroe and Francis; New York: Charles E. Francis and David Felt.
- "Origin of Potato Chips", Snopes
- Burhans, Dirk, 2008. Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, Madison, WI: Terrace Books (Univ. of Wisconsin Press), pp. 15-21.