If you listen to the local legends, We have George Speck to thank for the potato chip. Born in Saratoga County, New York, he worked for years as a hunter before manning the ovens at the Moon’s Lake House, and guests knew him for the way he cooked wild game — until the ultra-wealthy Commander Cornelius Vanderbilt walked in for a meal.
When chip-creator George Speck (left) heard the esteemed Commandore Cornelius Vanderbilt was eating at his establishment, he wasn’t surprised. After all, Moon’s Lake House was a special restaurant.
Moon’s Lake House was a well-to-do establishment in the Adirondacks, a wealthy area of New York. A lot of the patrons were quite well-off and powerful, but unlike a lot of similar establishments of the time, rich patrons dined alongside common laborers.
So, it wasn’t uncommon for George to interact with the likes of Vanderbilt, a military officer and member of the prominent family. In fact, the two had met before, and by the 1850s, they had a complicated relationship.
Once, while waiting for food, Vanderbilt called George Speck “Mr. Crum,” in error. A chef with a good sense of humor, George Speck replied, “A crumb is bigger than a Speck!” From then on, he wore the nickname like a badge of honor. He was George Crum.
This is where things get interesting. The legend says that, one night, a patron (the legend suggests this was Commander Vanderbilt, but others say he wasn’t in the area) complained that his potatoes were too thick. He sent them back to the kitchen.
There, George was swamped with orders from demanding Manhatten visitors. Without a thought, he grabbed the offending potatoes and cut them just a little bit thinner — like a modern-day French fry. He sent them back to the table.
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…Only to see the potatoes marching right back through the kitchen door moments later! George Crum was furious. Stressed out by the afternoon rush, he grabbed his knife, and sliced the potatoes in a way seen only a handful of times before.
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See, George was not the first person to cut a potato chip-thin. A newspaper article from 1849 spoke about a woman named Eliza who was known for her wonderful potato dishes, especially her thinly sliced “fried crisps.” But even she was out chipped.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt/Serious Eats
Dating back even further, an 1822 recipe book by a British man named Dr. William Kitchiner referenced potato chips as “potatoes fried in shavings.” The book was called The Cook’s Oracle and might represent the first official potato chip recipe! You won’t believe what Dr. Kitchiner thought about chips!
Dr. William Kitchiner had a very interesting idea about potato chips. His recipe book, The Cook’s Oracle, was meant to be a guide to eating healthy — yeah, Dr. Kitchiner believed the snack was healthy!
After cutting the potatos wafer thin, George Speck dropped them into oil, frying them up until they were so thin he was certain they wouldn’t even hold between the prongs of a fork. Satisfied, he sent the crisps to his guest.
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To Speck’s surprise. Vanderbilt was delighted by the salty, crunchy snack. Other guests noticed the commander enjoying his meal, and soon, more people wre requesting their potatoes cut thin and fried. Soon, George had an idea.
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He eventually added the treat to the menu, calling them “Sarasota Chips,” before opening his own restaurant, Crum’s, where he called them “Potato Crunches.” There, he continued to grow the legend of chips.
Some historical records suggest that George Speck put a basket of potato chips on every single table for guests to snack on as they waited. But as chip historians look back at Speck’s life, they had a hard time sorting fact from legend.
Because some accounts say George’s sister, Catherine Wicks, invented the chip when she accidetally dropped a piece of potato into boiling grease. George merely fished the chunk out of the pan and said, “We’ll have plenty of these.”
Regardless, Mr. Crum and his wife went on to operate a restaurant together until their retirement and his “Potato Crunches” were a fan favorite. Stiill, there’s a reason you aren’t pulling bags of “Crum Chips” off grocery store shelves.
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The first person on record to commercialize potato chips was William Tappendon of Cleveland, Ohio in 1895. He began selling bags of potato chips to consumers so that they could enjoy them from the comfort of home. From there, the industry grew.
Fast forward to the 1920s. A young Herman Lay was lying the foundations of the potato chip empire we know today, driving around selling bags of potato chips out of the trunk of his car. He had one problem.
Herman Lay’s main problem with his product was that, in the paper bags available at the time, greasy chips were messy. Additionally, they did not stay fresh for very long. But a woman in California was working on a solution.
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In 1926, Laura Scudder’s potato chip factory in California completed their re-design of the paper bag, adding in a max coated lining that kept chips fresher and spared consumers of the greasy mess. From here, the potato chip industry exploded.
Frito-Lay went on to become the multi-billion dollar company that we know today. But, believe it or not, the chip empire wasn’t the only company to strike it big on the back of a spiteful decision.
Modern doctors may very well recommend Corn Flakes as part of a balanced breakfast. In the 1890s, physicians would have also suggested a large bowl of cereal — but for another purpose entirely.
The origins of Corn Flakes go back to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. A leading expert on the well-being of mind, body, and soul, he amassed a large following across the United States. And these devotees were willing to do just about anything he told them.
Kellogg founded his Mecca of health at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. Here, he introduced patients to a rigorous lifestyle based on cutting-edge science — much of which turned out to be total nonsense — and the religious tenets of Seventh-day Adventism.
According to Kellogg’s faith, basic habits had devastating effects on the body and mind. Everyone in the sanitarium had to abstain from meat, alcohol, and sex. After all, Kellogg proclaimed, even the act of masturbation had the potential to drive one insane.
To cure the ailments caused by carnal impulses, Kellogg devised a number of strange therapies. He put patients in tubes of electrified wires or made them stand next to a revolving machine that repeatedly slapped them.
Strange as it sounds now, the well-to-do of the 19th century bought into Battle Creek’s methods. They hailed Dr. Kellogg as a genius and a saint. He was so incredibly giving, and he even gave his poor brother a job.
His younger sibling Will Keith Kellogg was struggling with his broom-selling business, so he came to work at the sanitarium. Despite his connection to the big man himself, Will got stuck with the grunt work.
While John gave lectures and devised new treatments, he stuck Will in the kitchen. The younger brother slaved away making all kinds of bland vegetarian fare, supposedly to help remove base instincts. One recipe, however, went awry.
In 1894, Will forgot about a lump of dough and left it out overnight. By the time he returned, it had grown stale and spotted with mold. While the dough didn’t seem edible, Will didn’t want to get in trouble for wasting ingredients.
YouTube / Comedy Central
Already disillusioned with his job, Will chose to grind up and bake the dough anyway. He didn’t expect anyone would notice the difference. However, when he removed the dish from the oven, he saw something amazing had happened.
YouTube / Jack C. Lamb
The dough came out in crispy flakes, which Will had never seen the likes of before. Curious, he sampled one. It was delicious. He took the flakes and ran up to John’s office. This discovery, he thought, could finally earn his big brother’s respect.
John reacted with just as much enthusiasm as his younger brother. He made these corn flakes a regular part of the sanitarium menu — not just because they were tasty, but because he reasoned their blandness would curb certain desires.
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Namely, the desire to self-pleasure. Will recognized an opportunity to make a lot of money, but John refused to profit off of their cure-all. It wouldn’t be ethical, he said. As the brothers bickered, they didn’t notice that others were looking to rip them off.
The Road to Wellville
Businessman C.W. Post stayed at Battle Creek for a brief time and got a full rundown of how the cornflakes were made. To the Kelloggs’ surprise, he opened his own cereal company once he returned home, copying their recipe down to the smallest detail.
This deception outraged both Kelloggs, but they couldn’t agree on the proper response. John was confident corn flakes’ merits as an anti-masturbation food were sufficient. Will, on the other hand, had plans to turn it into a tasty treat.
Medicine at Michigan
He argued that the two of them could make a fortune by just adding sugar to the flakes. John wouldn’t hear any of this blasphemy, and that was when Will decided he didn’t need his famous brother. He would start his own cereal company under the Kellogg name.
John sued his younger sibling but to no avail. Sugar-blasted and brilliantly marketed, the Kellogg Company flourished under Will’s direction. As the new century arrived, he became one of America’s leading industrialists. He came up with some bright ideas too.
He blew away breakfast cereal competitors by introducing the free prize inside the box, originally in the form of a pop-up picture book. The former kitchen worker had earned the respect of everyone around him, with the exception of his brother.
John kept his health empire going in spite of waning popularity. However, his credibility took a major hit when Battle Creek Sanitarium shut down amid the Great Depression. He died in 1943, having gone decades without speaking to Will.
Eight years later, Will passed away a wealthy man. His cereal brand is selling as strongly as ever, though it lacks most of the “health benefits” that John intended. While this doesn’t exactly surprise modern consumers, another cereal is turning heads with the new health warnings attached to its name.
Health Begins With Mom
Compared to cereal brands that are blasted with sugar and marshmallows, Cheerios seems like a safe bet for breakfast. After all, General Mills ran all those commercials about how they lower your cholesterol. But these ads don’t tell the full story.
Amy Mayes Photography
Ken Cook, founder of the Environmental Working Group, had his doubts. EWG is a nonprofit that promotes safe agricultural practices and corporate accountability, but even they didn’t take notice of breakfast cereals for a long time.
More than ever, consumers are paying close attention to what goes into their foods. But much of the focus goes to fresh produce, which may or may not come into contact with pesticides. Other foodstuffs fly under the radar.
Genetic Literacy Project
Everything changed in 2019, when a tip led EWG to examine Cheerios and other oat-based brands. Shockingly, they found something not listed anywhere on the cereal box ingredients — something chemical.
Natural Products Global
Of course, it’s no surprise to anyone that all kinds of substances go into our food, or that companies are intrinsically changing the nature of their products. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have allowed crops to grow bigger and resist threats.
Then again, there are good versions of GMOs and bad versions of GMOs. But EWG found a number of breakfast staples contained an incredibly dangerous chemical, one not meant for ingestion. It had to be the worst surprise ever stuffed in a cereal box.
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In the vast majority of their Cheerio tests, EWG found glyphosate. That name may not mean much to the average joe, but chemists know it as one of the main ingredients in Roundup weed killer.
Now, glyphosate is an effective pesticide that wipes out plants that would otherwise choke crops and suck up much-needed water from the soil. But when Ken and his team discovered this poison entered our food, they knew they had to act.
It’s vital to note that General Mills isn’t the first company to run into glyphosate-fueled controversy. Agro-giant Monsanto found itself barraged with similar accusations. These claims, however, had deadly proof backing them up.
March Against Monsanto
Dewayne Johnson, a California groundskeeper, won a nearly $300 million suit in 2018 after the court found that Roundup, a Monsanto product, gave him cancer. A slew of similar cases immediately followed.
Activists have been targeting Monsanto for years, but the entry of General Mills into the saga was a big surprise. It also begged the question: was America’s most popular cereal secretly a carcinogen?
General Mills, to their credit, admitted that a small number of pesticides did make its way into just about every one of their products. But they protested that they only allowed a safe amount to go through.
If you can believe it, the U.S. government actually agreed with them. The Environmental Protection Agency has legal limits for herbicide traces in foods, and General Mills didn’t exceed the maximum amount of glyphosate.
However, many critics were hesitant to accept the EPA’s findings. Big agricultural firms like Monsanto run huge lobbying campaigns to get politicians on their side. Was it possible they and General Mills pulled a few strings to sweep the issue under the rug?
That remains to be seen, though Dr. Paolo Boffetta offered a third-party perspective. The respected oncologist affirmed that low levels of pesticides “are unlikely to cause health effects in consumers.” But he did add a note of caution.
Dr. Boffetta warned cereal fans everywhere to keep tabs on just how much glyphosate is in a meal. Bouncing off that opinion, the EWG wondered if the pesticide had a greater impact on younger consumers.
With so many groups unable to reach a consensus on whether traces of glyphosate are, in fact, harmful to humans, the debate rages on. Interestingly to note, Ken Cook and his team do have some eyebrow-raising connections in the food industry.
Many of the EWG’s tests receive funding and publicity from pro-organics groups. This seems like more of an alliance than a true conflict of interest, but it still brings up some questions given the fact that many “organic” items still contain chemicals.
The jury is still out on pesticides in Cheerios. The best case scenario is that it’s harmless, while the worst is that the chemicals could cause serious illness. That’s enough to prompt many to ditch their cereal in exchange for eggs and toast! Still, there have been far stranger chapters in the history of breakfast cereal.
Lehigh Valley Live