Potato Chips – a national treasure
December 15, 2008
Ever wonder who invented the potato chip? This popular snack was the brain-child of Chef George Crum at Moon Lake House, Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853. It seems a customer was giving Chef Crum a hard time because the customer thought Chef Crum’s home-fried potatoes weren’t sliced thin enough. Crum decided to show him— and the other guests as well— by slicing the next batch with a razor. Thus, the potato chip was born. Originally called “Saratoga Chips,” the idea quickly caught on and spread throughout the United States, to the delight of potato growers everywhere. Business has been booming ever since. And now that the tasty creation is being produced without dangerous trans-fats, and with so many flavor variations, they are even more appealing.
Of course, every bag of potato chips starts with the potato plant itself. During growth of the plant above ground, sugars are converted to starch and stored along with other nutrients at the end of an underground stem in a swelling, or tuber, which we know as the potato. (The potato originated in South America and was introduced to Europe by early explorers.)
Chippers, as manufacturers call themselves, start using mature new potatoes from Florida fields in early spring, and then follow the growing season north. Although growers in many states contribute to the harvest, potato growers in the Red River Valley of North Dakota hold the distinction of being the largest producers of “chipping potatoes” in the world. These northern potatoes aren’t harvested until the vines are mature or dying and the potato skin is firm and tough, making them good storage potatoes for the chippers’ winter supply.
When a shipment of potatoes arrives at the “potato chip factory,” a sample is taken and tested for defects, cooking quality, and size. If they measure up, they are unloaded into large wooden crates and taken to the destoner, which cycles the potatoes through water to remove rocks and other external debris. Next, the potatoes are tumbled through abrasive rollers with water to remove most of the peels. After this, they are visually inspected to ensure that adequate peel has been removed, and that the potatoes are once again free of defects.
The next step involves a slicer that cuts them into chips of the required thickness before going through a washer, where excess scrap and starch is removed. The slices are then blow-dried to remove any water and conveyed to the automatic fryer, where they will spend two to three minutes cooking to a golden crispness.
They are salted immediately, and an optical sorter picks out and discards any defective chips before they are sent to the packaging machines, which package them by weight and put them into cartons for shipping. Hundreds of thousands of bags of potato chips are sold annually in the U.S. alone, with summertime being the peak season.
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One of our U.S. astronauts, when asked by a reporter what he missed most while on long space flights, replied without hesitation, “Potato chips!” I don’t know what his wife thought about that remark, but I think a lot of other folks in that situation might agree with him.
So, the next time you’re enjoying a bag of potato chips, you might consider the long and complex process that brought them to you and silently thank the forgotten inventor, Chef Crum, for such a wonderful invention.