Death by Potato or All Hail the Chip (plus recipes)

by Lauren Kessler

I have a love-hate relationship with the potato.

On the one hand, I grew up in the soon-to-be suburbanized potato fields of Long Island, unhappily digging up pounds of unwanted volunteer spuds from my mother’s backyard garden. On the other hand, as a backyard farmer myself, I have grown to love the potato in its many varieties, each with poetry in its name: Peruvian Purples, Ruby Crescents, AmaRosas, Kennebecs, Katahdins. And then there is the history: rich, earthy, quirky. Also, spading up spuds is one of the more joyful activities in a garden.

My love-hate relationship has other dimensions. I love that potatoes are, yes, a legit health food. One medium baked potato (with skin) is high in fiber and rich in vitamin C, B6, potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and folate. Also, no fat. And, surprise, more protein than a handful of nuts. 

On the other hand, it is hard to ignore what we have done to the humble spud to transform it into among the least healthy of snack foods in America. A small bag of potato chips—the crunchy contents of which you inhale in 30 seconds—gets 60 percent of its calories from fat and, except for those calories (twice the amount in that good-sized baked potato), there’s virtually no nutritional value. And we all know the hard truth of that advertising slogan: I bet you can’t eat just one. The irresistibility of the chip is the result of intensive food/ flavor/mouth feel research. I deeply resent that the chip is scientifically formulated to be biochemically and neurologically irresistible. 

Potato chips are also the most popular snack food in the country (and have been for almost half a century). “Snack food” is a euphemism. Junk food is the accurate term. According to U.S. Census data and the Simmons National Consumer Survey, 34.69 million Americans consumed 16 bags or more last year. And a recent study found that 63 percent of North Americans had eaten chips as a snack in the last 30 days. Oh, and roughly 28 million pounds of chips are consumed during the Super Bowl.

And on the other other hand, it is impossible not to love the origin story—or rather, stories—of the chip.

The most popular one goes like this: One day in 1853, the shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt was dining at a noted restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was served a plate of fried potatoes that he complained were too thickly sliced. With the haughtiness befitting a Robber Baron, he sent the plate back to the kitchen. In the kitchen was George Crum, a famed chef of Native American and Black heritage, who—like any good chef would–took umbrage. To spite Mr. Vanderbilt, he sliced a potato paper thin and fried it hot and fast, nearly burning it before he plated it and sent it out to the dining room. To Crum’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved the crisps. Thus the potato chip was born.

Not so fast. Or, to put it bluntly, as the Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer of Vanderbilt concluded: “There is no truth to the tale.”

Instead, it may have been George’s sister, Catherine Adkins Wicks, who was the originator of the potato chip. “Aunt Kate” worked alongside him in the kitchen and in one variation of the disgruntled diner story, it is she, not Crum, who shaved a potato paper-thin in a moment of pique. In another telling, she accidentally dropped a thin slice into a boiling pot of fat while peeling potatoes. Retrieving it with a fork, popping it in her mouth, she experienced a culinary ah-ha moment. 

Or not.

At least five other men and women have been credited with inventing this most popular junk food. And food historians suggest the chip probably wasn’t invented in Saratoga Springs—and possibly not in the U.S. at all. In fact—yes, there ARE facts!–recipes for frying potato slices (potato “shavings”) can be found in a U.S. cookbook published in 1832 that was derived from an earlier English collection published in 1817. So there.

The manufacture, spread and marketing of the potato chip is a story in itself, from an Ohio-based company founded in 1910 and believed to be the first producers of mass-consumption chips; to salesman Herman Lay who opened a snack food operation in Nashville, purchased an Atlanta-based potato chip company in 1938 (renaming it Lay’s) and crisscrossed the southern United States, selling the product from the trunk of his car.Lay’s, which became Frito-Lay’s, which was bought by Pepsi-Cola, gets all the love (or hate) but the commercialization of the chip would not have been possible without Laura Scudder, a California entrepreneur who, in the 1920s, paid her workers to take home sheets of wax paper and iron them to form of bags, which were filled with chips at her factory the next day. This pioneering method reduced crumbling, kept the chips fresh and crisp longer, and ushered in mass marketing.

Today, Lay’s accounts for almost 60 percent of the “savory snack-food” market and makes and markets more than 200 different flavor chips. The company holds an annual contest for new flavors, winners of which have included Cheesy Garlic Bread, Chicken & Waffles, Sriracha, Cappuccino, Mango Salsa, Wasabi Ginger, Biscuits & Gravy, and New York Reuben.

The company sells potato chips in 22 countries, including Romania, Pakistan, and Serbia. 

Should you be traveling to China and wanting to snack on Lay’s potato chips, which seems unlikely, but I am not going to judge, you will find these special flavors: “Cool and Refreshing” (Cucumber, Kiwi, Blueberry, Cherry Tomato, and Lime), Italian Red Meat, Mexican Tomato Chicken, Texas Grilled BBQ,  French Chicken, Hot & Sour Fish Soup, Finger Licking Braised Pork, Black Pepper Rib Eye Steak, Sea Salt And Cheese, Sea Salt And Chocolate, Green Tea, and Lime.

But we should not lay the blame entirely on Lay’s (could not resist that) or the junk food industry for transforming the nutritious potato into the nutritionist’s nightmare. Behind the scenes, home cooks looking to use cheap ingredients in “creative” ways have disrespected the simple, healthy potato for generations and generations. Instead, they have blanketed it in cheese, smothered it in sour cream, drowned it in butter, mixed it with mayonnaise, commingled it with canned soups, and pared with bacon. (We can all excuse, and even celebrate, the latter.)

Ready for a few heart-stopping recipes?


From an iconic cookbook published in 1950 and written by Mildred Knopf, a well-known cookbook author and the sister-in-law of Alfred A. Knopf, founder of the famed publishing house:

2 lbs of potatoes
¼ lb butter plus one “large lump” of butter
3 egg yolks
1 c cream
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp white pepper

Peel and boil the potatoes until soft. Force through a ricer into a big mixing bowl.

Melt ¼ lb of butter and pour into potatoes. Mix well.

Beat in 3 egg yolks, one at a time. Add salt and pepper.

Add 1 c cream. Beat until smooth and creamy.

Place on top of a large double boiler. Keep warm. Mix occasionally.

Serve with a lump of butter and sprinkle of paprika.

Call your cardiologist. (Okay, I added that one.)

Brunch Potato Casserole

Here is a health disaster from the popular site: 

4 lbs of potatoes, skinned and cubed
1 lb. of processed cheese, cubed
2 cups mayonnaise
1 onion, finely chopped
1 lb. bacon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Place potatoes in a large pan, fill with water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until potatoes are just soft. Drain, place in a large bowl. 

While the potatoes are still hot, gently stir in cheese without mashing potatoes. Continue to stir, every minute or so, until cheese is melted.

In a separate bowl, stir together mayonnaise, onion, and (cooked) bacon. Gently fold into potatoes and cheese. Spread into a 13×9-inch baking dish.

Bake for 50 minutes.

Funeral Potatoes

So named because they are a popular side dish served at after-funeral luncheonsparticularly in the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Also, maybe, because eating this dish will hasten yours.

2 cans cream of chicken soup
1 pint sour cream
1 ½ c grated Cheddar cheese
½ c dehydrated onion flakes
1 (30 oz) package frozen shredded hash browns, thawed
1 c crushed potato chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine cream of chicken soup, sour cream, Cheddar cheese, and onions in a large bowl. 

Mix in hash browns. Pour into a 9×13-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle with crushed potato chips.

Bake uncovered until cheese is melted and top is crisp, about 45 minutes.

Now: Ready to reclaim the mighty—healthy– potato?

Go out to your garden, spade up a spud. Rinse and scrub. Prick the skin 6-8 times. Place in a 450 degree oven (yes, that hot) for 45-60 minutes. Remove from oven, brush ever-so-lightly with melted butter or olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Return to oven for 10 more minutes. And then, my friends and fellow farmers, savor. 

photo credit: Peter Schad, Unsplash