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George Speck (also called George Crum; c. 1824– July 22, 1914) was a man of mixed ancestry, including St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk Indian, African-American, and possibly German. He worked as a hunter, guide, and cook in the Adirondacks, who became renowned for his culinary skills after being hired at Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake, near Saratoga Springs, New York.
Speck's specialities included wild game, especially venison and duck, and he often experimented in the kitchen. During the 1850s, while working at Moon's Lake House in the midst of a dinner rush, Speck tried slicing the potatoes extra thin and dropping it into the deep hot fat of the frying pan. Thus was born the potato chip.
George Speck (also called George Crum) was born on July 15, 1824 (or 1825) in Saratoga County in upstate New York. Some sources suggest that the family lived in Ballston Spa or Malta; others suggest they came from the Adirondacks. Depending upon the source, his father, Abraham, and mother Diana, were variously identified as African American, Oneida, Stockbridge, and/or Mohawk Indians. Some sources associate the family with the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk reservation that straddles the US/Canadian border. Speck and his sister Kate Wicks, like other Native American or mixed-race people of that era, were variously described as "Indian," "Mulatto," "Black," or just "Colored," depending on the snap judgement of the census taker.
Speck developed his culinary skills at Cary Moon's Lake House on Saratoga Lake, noted as an expensive restaurant at a time when wealthy families from Manhattan and other areas were building summer "camps" in the area. Speck and his sister, Wicks, also cooked at the Sans Souci in Ballston Spa, alongside another St. Regis Mohawk Indian known for his skills as a guide and cook, Pete Francis. One of the regular customers at Moon's was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, although he savored the food, could never seem to remember Speck's name. On one occasion, he called a waiter over to ask “Crum,” “How long before we shall eat?” Rather than take offense, Speck decided to embrace the nickname, figuring that, "A crumb is bigger than a speck."
Wicks later recalled the invention of the potato chip as an accident: she had "chipped off a piece of the potato which, by the merest accident, fell into the pan of fat. She fished it out with a fork and set it down upon a plate beside her on the table." Her brother tasted it, declared it good, and said, “We’ll have plenty of these.” In a 1932 interview with the Saratogian newspaper, her grandson, John Gilbert Freeman, asserted Wick's role as the true inventor of the potato chip.
Speck, however, was the one who popularized the potato chip, first as a cook at Moon's and then in his own place. By 1860, Speck had opened his own restaurant, called Crum's, on Storey Hill in nearby Malta, New York. His cuisine was in high demand among Saratoga Springs' tourists and elites: "His prices were…those of the fashionable New York restaurants, but his food and service were worth it…Everything possible was raised on his own small farm, and that, too, got his personal attention whenever he could arrange it." According to popular accounts, he was said to include a basket of chips on every table. One contemporaneous source recalls that in his restaurant, Speck was unquestionably the man in charge: "His rules of procedure were his own. They were very strict, and being an Indian, he never departed from them. In the slang of the racecourse, he “played no favorites.” Guests were obliged to wait their turn, the millionaire as well as the wage-earner. Mr. Vanderbilt once was obliged to wait an hour and a half for a meal...With none but rich pleasure-seekers as his guests, Crum kept his tables laden with the best of everything, and for it all charged Delmonico prices."
Potato chip legend
Recipes for frying potato slices were published in several cookbooks in the 19th century. In 1832, a recipe for fried potato "shavings" was included in a United States cookbook derived from an earlier English collection. 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.
The New York Tribune ran a feature article on "Crum's: The Famous Eating House on Saratoga Lake" in December 1891, but, curiously, mentioned nothing about potato chips. Neither did Crum's commissioned biography, published in 1893, nor did one 1914 obituary in a local paper. Another obituary states "Crum is said to have been the actual inventor of "Saratoga chips."" When Wicks died in 1924, however, her obituary authoritatively identified her as follows: "A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102, and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips."
Hugh Bradley's 1940 history of Saratoga contains some information about Speck, based on local folklore as much as on any specific historical primary sources. Fox and Banner said that Bradley had cited an 1885 article in the Hotel Gazette about Speck and the potato chips. Bradley repeated several myths that appear in that article, including that "Crum was born in 1828, the son of Abe Speck, a mulatto jockey who had come from Kentucky to Saratoga Springs and married a Stockbridge Indian woman," and that, "Crum also claimed to have considerable German and Spanish blood."
Cary Moon, owner of Moon’s Lake House, rushed to claim credit for the invention, and began mass-producing the chips, first served in paper cones, then packaged in boxes. They soon became wildly popular: "It was at Moon’s that Clio first tasted the famous Saratoga chips, said to have originated there, and it was she who first scandalized spa society be strolling along Broadway and about the paddock at the race track crunching the crisp circlets out of a paper sack as though they were candy or peanuts. She made it the fashion, and soon you saw all Saratoga dipping into cornucopias filled with golden-brown paper-thin potatoes; a gathered crowd was likely to create a sound like a scuffling through dried autumn leaves." Visitors to Saratoga Springs were advised to take the 10-mile journey around the lake to Moon's if only for the chips: "the hobby of the Lake House is Fried Potatoes, and these they serve in good style. They are sold in papers like confectionary."
A 1973 advertising campaign by the St. Regis Paper Company, which manufactured packaging for chips, featured an ad for Crum (Speck) and his story, published in the national magazines, Fortune and Time. During the late 1970s, the variant of the story featuring Vanderbilt became popular because of the interest in his wealth and name, and evidence suggests the source was an advertising agency for the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association.
A 1983 article in Western Folklore identifies potato chips as having originated in Saratoga Springs, New York, while critiquing the variants of popular stories. In all versions, the chips became popular and subsequently known as "Saratoga chips" or "potato crunches".
The 21st-century Snopes website writes that Crum's customer, if he existed, was more likely an obscure one. Vanderbilt was a regular customer at Moon's Lake House and at Crum's Malta restaurant, but there is no evidence that he played any role in inventing (or demanding) potato chips.
- Hugh Bradley, Such Was Saratoga, New York: 1940
- Hugh Bradley. Such Was Saratoga 1940:121-122
- Doug Gruse, "Chipping Away at History" Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York, November 25, 2009
- Doug Gruse, "Chipping Away at History" Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York, November 25, 2009
- Elizabeth Barrett Britten [Jean McGregor]. Chronicles of Saratoga, Saratoga Springs, NY: Bradshaw 1947:176
- Elizabeth Barrett Britten [Jean McGregor]. Chronicles of Saratoga, Saratoga Springs, NY: Bradshaw 1947:44-45
- “Another Claims Potato Chip Idea” Glens Falls Post Star August 4, 1932
- Hugh Bradley, Such Was Saratoga, New York: 1940, 121-122.
- New York Tribune December 27, 1891
- "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, Gcuravies, 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.
- 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
- "George Crum Dies at Saratoga Lake", The (Saratoga Springs) Saratogian, 27 July 1914
- "Famous Hunter Guide and Cook Dies at 96 Years". unknown (clipping only).
- The Saratogian Saratoga Springs, New York, October 8, 1924
- Edna Ferber. Saratoga Trunk, Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1941:233-234
- R.F. Dearborn, Saratoga and How to See It. Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons, and Company 1871:51
- Burhans, Dirk (2008). Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, Madison, WI: Terrace Books (Univ. of Wisconsin Press), pp. 15–21.
- "Potato Chip". snopes.com. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
- "Early Lake Houses Saratoga, New York", from Reminiscences of Saratoga, compiled by Cornelius E. Durkee, reprinted by The Saratogian 1927–28