George Speck (also called George Crum July 15, 1824 – July 22, 1914) was a man of mixed ancestry, including St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk and African. 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.
George'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 was born 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."
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.
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."
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.
Copyright Black History Mini Docs Inc. 2020 All Rights Reserved.