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Published:June 22nd, 2008 12:23 EST
American Junk Food: Potato Chips

American Junk Food: Potato Chips

By Daniel Mabee

Ah, potato chips. Odds are, you`ve had one before. In fact, you`ve probably had a lot of them before - after all, you can`t eat just one. Typically known as "crisps" in the United Kingdom - "chips" referring to hot, thicker potato slices across the water - potato chips are enjoyed across the globe. From Australia, to Japan, to the United States, people love to bite into a crunchy chip. To whom do we owe this crispy delight?

Potato ChipsAs is common for such a widely-loved snack, the potato chip`s invention is a matter of debate. Although reference to thin, crispy potato shavings can be found as early as 1824 (in Mary Randolph`s "The Virginia House-wife"), it is unclear how similar these recipes were to modern chips. By far the most popular legend, however, places the chip`s birth date as August 24, 1853, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

As the myth goes, a gentleman was eating at Moon`s Lake House in Saratoga. Unhappy with the potatoes he was being served - too thick, undercooked - he repeatedly sent them back to the chef, a man named George Crum. As each plate was returned to him, Crum grew more and more fed up with his picky customer. Finally, he decided to spitefully slice the potatoes so thin that they couldn`t possibly be eaten with a fork - crispy, fried slivers. Much to Crum`s surprise, the customer loved the thin chips, and they were soon added as a permanent menu item at Moon`s Lake House.

We do know that by the turn of the century, fried chips were a popular, common dish in America. However, you couldn`t yet grab a bag of smoky barbecue and crack in - at the time, the chips were completely unflavored and were generally sold in metal tins.

In order to reach its modern state, the crisp had to take many steps. We owe the beginnings of the modern bag to a California named Laura Scudder. Needing a grease-resistant, sealed means of moving her product (potato chips, believe it for not), Scudder came up with the idea of ironing pieces of wax paper together around her crisps, and voila! The first potato chip bag.

The very first flavor, the exotic "salt," appeared about 1920 courtesy of Smith`s Potato Crisps Company, based out of London. However, these still were not the chips you know today - rather than the crisps coming salted, they were simply sold with a salt packet that could be added by the hungry consumer.

It wasn`t until the 1950s that the world finally got to enjoy pre-flavored crispy potatoes. Joseph Murphy, of an Irish chip company called Tayto, began to experiment with various methods of flavoring his product. After a great deal of failed experiments, Murphy managed to find a good, efficient and delicious way to salt (and otherwise season) his chips during production. Tayto soon offered salted chips, as well as the first different flavors, cheese and onion and salt and vinegar.

As you know, flavored chips weren`t exactly a flop, and today you can find anything from guacamole chips, to smoky bacon (a European favorite), to mayonnaise (popular in Japan). In 2005, potato chips brought in over 16 billion dollars - not at all chump change, amounting to over a third of the savory snack industry`s total profits.

An American classic, chips are good on sandwiches, for breading meats, or, of course, just to ease your hunger on a lazy afternoon. So go out, buy a bag, crack it open.

Try to eat just one.

I dare ya.