An Ode to Glorious Chips (And Who Invented Nachos)
Few junk food items have ever reached the heights of general and almost universal popularity as the humble potato chip and its tasty derivative brethren the tortilla chip. But who invented the potato chip, and its cheesy and blessed of the light modification, nachos? How about the invention of tasty, tasty Doritos? Well, I’m glad you asked because that’s what we are going to discuss today, as well as, along the way, what those little black spots you find in the tortilla chip are, what’s up with green potato chips and are they really poisonous, who invented the thicker, fried potato variety of goodness we call the french fry, and why Pringles are sort of the red headed step child of the potato chip world, not really worthy to even be called such. So, put on your nacho sombrero, lather yourself up in cheese dip and guacamole, and let’s dive in, shall we?
First, who invented the noble and in all ways exquisitely glorious potato chip?
The prevailing story of the origin of the chip of potato starts in Saratoga Springs, New York, a historically affluent resort community. The year was 1853, eight years before the beginning of the American Civil War. Known for its mineral springs and their supposed rejuvenation properties, Saratoga Springs had just started becoming a tourist destination with the help of the railroad that cut through the town. Resorts, inns, restaurants, and spas had begun to crop up along the shores of Saratoga Lake. Moon’s Lake House, owned by Cary Moon, was one of the finest of those restaurants. Vacationers and wealthy summer home owners visited the restaurant often. At the restaurant, two people shared the cooking responsibilities, Catherine “Aunt Kate” Weeks and her brother (or brother-in-law, depending on who’s telling the story), George Crum.
George was born George Speck, his mother was Native American and his father was a free African-American making a living as a horse jockey. When George was a young man, he adopted his father’s horse racing name – Crum. After an earlier career as a trapper and hunting guide, he made his way to Saratoga Springs, where he began cooking and, by all accounts, seemed to get pretty good at it. So good, in fact, he was hired by Cary Moon to work at his restaurant.
Up to this point, based on the evidence at hand, we can be fairly certain all of this is in the ballpark of true. But here’s where, perhaps, elements of legend creep in. The story goes that it was about dinner time during Moon’s second summer season on the Lake. A customer came in and ordered Moon’s Fried Potatoes, the well-known house specialty. Crum whipped up a batch and served it to the customer, who complained that the potatoes were cut much too thick. So, he sent the item back to be remade. Crum did his best to make them thinner, yet when the discerning patron got his second order, again he complained that the thickness of the potatoes weren’t to his liking. So, once again, the customer told Crum to try again.
Crum, none too pleased that someone would insult his cooking, cut the potatoes paper-thin, dumped them in a vat of oil, let them cook so long that they became hard and crispy, and then salted them heavily, thinking that these “fried potatoes” would now be inedible. When served the item, the customer took a bite…and then another…and then another, before proclaiming that the fried slices of potatoes were delicious. It became known as the “Saratoga Chip.” The potato chip was born… Or so the legend goes.
As one could imagine, there are several versions of this story and all are disputed and, as we’ll get into, for good reason. First off, assuming the story is true, there is the question of who this customer actually was. The less interesting account was that it was simply a regular (albeit whiny) farmer, hungry from a long day out in the fields. The more famed tale is that the customer was shipping and railroad mogul, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
This part of the story was, at the very least, appropriated by the Snack Food Association in the late 1970s. The Snack Food Association, in partnership with Mary Lou Whitney, the wife of the great-great grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, published an account (essentially as an advertisement) that mostly leaves Crum out of the origin story, partially crediting Vanderbilt with the invention. Says the ad,
“The chef, to spite Vanderbilt, sliced his potatoes very thin, fried them to a crisp and salted them heavily. Vanderbilt loved them and the potato chip was born.”
It was this advertising campaign that firmly established in popular folklore how the potato chip was invented and who invented it. Later, Saratoga Springs historian Violet Dunn would would write a letter to the Snack Food Association, claiming,
“I am annoyed at Mary Lou Whitney when she claims Commodore Vanderbilt was the man who refused to accept the fried potatoes. There is no documentation to substantiate this. It could have been your great grandfather or mine.”
You might not be at all surprised to learn that George Crum himself also had nothing to do with the potato chip, at least in terms of its origin. As an article in Western Folklore journal written by William Fox and Mae Banner in 1983 points out, it took 70 years from when the chip was supposedly invented for Crum to be credited with the invention. In fact, when he passed away in 1913, the local newspaper’s obituary of Crum didn’t have a single mention of “potato chip” in it. He was first mentioned in relation to the potato chip in the 1920s when a local historian wrote, “Crum is said to have been the actual inventor of ‘Saratoga Chips’ when he was employed at Moon’s old place.”
Another version of the tale involves Crum and his sister (or sister-in-law) “Aunt Kate” Weeks. In a 1940 article from the Saratogian written by the town’s historian at the time, Jean McGregor, it claims that Weeks was actually the one to accidentally create the potato chip. In this story, Weeks was making pastries, frying them in a vat of fat. She was also peeling potatoes in an attempt to multi-task. Well, a slice of potato fell into the fat and when she fished it out, Crum saw the greasy potato sitting on the counter and took a bite. It was so good that Crum said they needed to sell them, which they did for ten cents a bag.
So what’s the truth in all this? It’s always possible Crum may have served potato chips at some point whether at Moon’s Lake House or later at his own restaurant which he opened in 1860. (It was a popular item in the area later in his life; it’s also been claimed he commonly served baskets of chips on tables as an appetizer for guests.) And he may have even invented his own version of it, even possibly being ignorant of any other. But this all seems unlikely as, if he had invented it, one would think he would have claimed this fact at some point to help promote his restaurant, given the eventual popularity of “Saratoga Chips.” Further, the New York Tribune in 1891 did a write up on Crum’s restaurant, Crum’s House, and made no mention of anything remotely resembling potato chips being served there, which also calls into question the claims that he served the chips as an appetizer to all guests. Perhaps most damning of all is that Crum commissioned a biography of his life to be written in 1893- in it there is not one mention of him inventing potato chips.
But whatever the case, no one from Saratoga Springs can really claim they were the first to make potato chips, though the chefs in the town did help popularize it. (“Saratoga Chips” was even a relatively common name for potato chips up until around the mid-20th century). But it seems the potato chip was invented earlier in the 19th century in Europe, and possibly before. After all, potatoes were a very common food (often fried) throughout the UK, France, and Belgium particularly.
On this note, potatoes were first introduced to Europe through the Spanish. In 1537, Jimenez de Quesada and his Spanish forces encountered a village in Colombia where all the natives had fled. Among other things, they found in the native’s food stuffs potatoes, which the Spanish initially called “truffles”.
Around 20 years later, potatoes were brought back to Spain and also introduced to Italy. At this time, the potatoes were still quite small and bitter and didn’t grow well in either Spain or Italy. However, over time, larger and less bitter versions of the plant were cultivated and the plant gradually caught on elsewhere in Europe, though it was initially met with quite a bit of resistance, due to the fact that the Europeans were convinced potatoes caused a variety of diseases and were also thought to be poisonous by some, though seemingly not everyone, particularly it would seem in places like Belgium. (It should be noted here that they had good reason to assume them poisonous, which we’ll get into later when talking about green potato chips.)
In any event, later, the French got into the game which helped more widely popularize the potato. And all of this, thanks to a French army medical officer named Antoine-Augustine Parmentier, who very famously championed the potato throughout France and parts of Europe. During the Seven Years War, Parmentier was taken captive and, as a part of his prison rations, was given potatoes.
At this time, the French had previously used potatoes only for hog feed and seemingly never ate them themselves, as noted due to concern over diseases. In fact, in 1748, the French Parliament even banned cultivation of potatoes as they were convinced potatoes caused leprosy. However, while in prison in Prussia, Parmentier was forced to cultivate and eat potatoes and found the French notions about the potato just weren’t true.
When he came back to France, Parmentier began championing the potato as a potential food source. Finally, in 1772, the Paris Faculty of Medicine proclaimed that potatoes were edible for humans, though Parmentier still encountered significant resistance and wasn’t even allowed to grow potatoes in his garden at the Invalides hospital where he worked as a pharmacist.
Parmentier then began a more aggressive campaign to promote the potato in France, hosting dinners featuring potatoes with such notable dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, King Louis XVI, and Queen Marie Antoinette, who incidentally has gotten a bad wrap from history mostly just because the victors write the popular history. See our video on the subject and her tragic life and death.
In any event, Parmentier also would hire armed guards to surround his potato patch, to try to convince people that what was in the patch was very valuable. He would then tell the guards to accept any bribes they were offered by people and let them “steal” the potatoes. In the end though, it took a famine in 1785 for the potato to become popular in France.
Once the French accepted the potato, its popularity skyrocketed in the country. By 1795, potatoes were being grown on a very large scale in France, including at the royal gardens at Tuileries, where the gardens were converted into potato fields.
As a brief aside, within that span of time, the French either invented or learned to make so-called french fries. Once discovered or invented in France, French fries became extremely popular in the country, particularly in Paris, where they were sold by push-cart vendors on the streets and called “frites”.
Now, it should be noted that this all happened in the late 18th century, which was as much as 100 years after some claim the Belgians were supposedly already making “French” fries. But by other arguments, this all happened around the same time for both the French and the Belgians. And it really isn’t totally clear from hard evidence what the truth is here.
Historical accounts indicate that the Belgians were possibly frying up thin strips of potatoes as early as the late 17th century (though, again, better documented evidence wasn’t until the late 18th century) in the Meuse Valley between Dinant and Liège, in Belgium. How it is speculated they came up with the idea was that, in this area, it was very common for the people to fry up small fish as a staple for their meals. However, when the rivers froze up thick enough, it tended to make it somewhat difficult to get fish. So instead of frying up fish in these times, they would cut up potatoes in long thin slices, and fry them up as they did the fish.
Giving some credence to this story is that the Spanish controlled much of what is now modern day Belgium at the time the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe. So, at least, the Belgians probably were among the first to have a crack at the potato, in terms of thinking up ways to prepare food from potatoes.
Going back to French fries and who actually invented them, It should also be noted that, shortly before the potato became popular in France, the Franco-Austrian war was going on (also known as the War of Austrian Succession), much of which took place around modern day Belgium. So it’s possible that the French soldiers were introduced to fries by the Belgians at this time and, a couple decades later when the potato became popular in France, these former soldiers then introduced the preparation method to the rest of France. Or it’s possible the French came up with the idea on their own and spread them to Belgium around the same time; or that both came up with the idea independently. It, after all, not being rocket surgery to think to dice up in various ways and fry potatoes.
Whatever the case, it was the French who seem to be the ones that spread fries to America and Britain. Noteworthy here, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson had the White House chef, Frenchman Honoré Julien, prepare “potatoes served in the French manner” for a dinner party. He described these as “Potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings”. (French fries at a White House state dinner…. classy.) This is one of the earliest references to fried potato strips being referred to as “French”.
Going back to the worldwide spread of popularity of the so-called french fry, it was, in turn, the Americans, through fast food chains, that eventually popularly introduced them to the rest of the non-European world under the name “French fries”. Ironically, because of this latter spread by American fast food chains, in many parts of the non-European world, “French fries” are sometimes called “American fries”.
Whatever the case on any of this, going back to the much thinner fried potato, the glorious chip, it seems likely, and all evidence points to, that it was invented in Europe, and seemingly just a natural extension of the french fry, more or less prepared in a similar way, but much thinner sliced.
Whoever was the first to actually do it in Europe, thoroughly debunking the aforementioned popular Crum origin story, we have Englishman William Kitchiner’s famed 1822 cookbook Cook’s Oracle, which has a recipe for “Potato Fried in Slices or Shavings.” The recipe is extremely close to the original Saratoga Chip, having the chef cut the potatoes in “shavings round and round… dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping… send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.” This cookbook was a bestseller in both the UK and in America and was published six years before George Crum was even born.
Beyond that, there are several other cookbooks that featured essentially the same thing before Crum supposedly invented them. For instance, The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph (1824) and Alexis Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People (1845), among many others.
Despite all the varied versions and lack of documented evidence, the “Saratoga Chip” is still very much part of the town’s identity today. Just, the potato chip wasn’t invented there as is so commonly stated.
Whatever the case, potato chips saw a huge burst in popularity outside of being served in restaurants thanks to former nurse and lawyer, Laura Scudder. (Incidentally, Scudder was also the first known female attorney in Ukiah, California.) Scudder eventually moved to Monterey Park, California and started a business in 1926 selling various food items, including potato chips. As you might expect from the date, and from the fact that she was a woman in an era when women weren’t generally welcomed as business owners, her business struggled a bit at first due to the Great Depression and that many companies refused to work with her; even getting insurance for her businesses’ truck was an issue until she managed to find a female insurance agent.
At this point, shelf life for the chips was generally poor, due to lack of effective packaging. They were usually sold in bulk in cracker barrels or tins, neither of which was ideal. Beyond the poor shelf life, chips at the bottom also tended to become crushed. Scudder got the bright idea to have her employees iron wax paper into bags which they could then put the chips inside and seal shut. This method worked amazingly well and helped make the former popular restaurant item something consumers could buy and store relatively effectively at home.
Another innovation of Scudder’s was to put the date the item was packaged on the chip bags, so consumers could make sure they were getting fresh bags. On that note, today, chips are typically stored in bags filled with nitrogen, which simultaneously helps keep the chips from getting crushed during shipping and keeps them fresher even longer.
In any event, needless to say, she soon had a whole fleet of trucks that needed insured, and of course stuck with the lone insurance agent in her area willing to work with a female business owner at the time. She would later sell her business for $5 million or about $48 million today (though noteworthy turned down a $9 million offer because the buyers wouldn’t guarantee her employee’s jobs after the sale). At its peak, her business would go on to gross well over $100 million in sales annually.
Moving on from the gloriousness of the humble potato chip in its many flavors, let us now discuss the pinnacle of all chip-based cuisine, the wonder that is nachos, and what saintly individual deserves to be honored for all time for bequeathing it to us.
While of course many choose the tortilla based chip variety for nachos, regardless of chip type, the legend of nachos has an American football-centric history that doesn’t date all that far back, similar to another Super Bowl party staple, Buffalo Wings, that only became popular a little under three decades ago.
Prior to the 1940s, the word “nacho” had two meanings- one was a Tex-Mex slang word combining “naturally” and “of course” into “nacho.” The other was a common nickname for a small boy whose name was “Ignacio”- basically the Mexican equivalent of calling a boy named William “Billy” or Timothy “Timmy.”
Discovery of this latter fact led Adriana Orr from the Oxford English Dictionary in a search to see if there was an Ignacio behind nachos. What she ultimately found was a man named Ignacio Anaya Sr. who, while he probably wasn’t the first person to ever decide to mix tortilla chips with melted cheese and jalapenos, does seem to be the person directly responsible for nachos becoming a thing, along with lending his name to the food item.
The “nacho” story begins in the early 1940s in the town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is only four miles from the American border and near Eagle Pass, Texas. That was the site of historic Fort Duncan, which during World War II was used as a support facility for the nearby Eagle Pass Army Airfield. With the border only a few miles away, many who were stationed in the region often traveled into Mexico for a better bite to eat.
This is where details of this legend get deliciously murky. To wit- in Piedras Negras a favorite restaurant of the border crossing Americans was the patriotically named Victory Club, then owned by one Rudolfo de Los Santos. Another such restaurant in the town was the Old Moderno Restaurant. Both establishments featured a common worker – the aforementioned Ignacio Anaya Sr., who was more affectionately known as “Nacho” Anaya. Stories are mixed (including ones featuring interviews with Anaya Sr. himself) as to which he was working at when he first whipped up the appetizer that would come to bear his name. Wherever he was when he first made it, after their advent, he made sure they were served at both restaurants.
While there are various tellings of the tale, according to an article by Clarence J. La Roche published on May 23, 1954 in the San Antonio Express titled “Nacho’s? Natch!”- the first known account of the origin of nachos- Ignacio himself told La Roche that one night a group of customers (often variously claimed to have been soldiers or soldiers’ wives), tired of the normal fare, came in asking for something completely new. La Roche then stated Ignacio told him,
“Honestly, I didn’t have the least idea what I was going to try. But, I went into the kitchen, looked around and started groping for an idea. I saw a bowl of freshly fried pieces of tortilla; then I figured some grated cheese on them might be all right. Well, I got the cheese and began sprinkling the tortilla pieces with it. About this time, I got the idea to put some jalapeno strips atop the cheese. I got the jalapeno; and as I finished putting the strips on the cheese, I decided it would be a good idea to put the whole thing into the oven to melt the cheese.”
(In a 1969 interview appearing in the San Antonio Express and News, he would further state that his recipe for nachos was mostly just a variation on quesadillas his foster mother used to make him as a child, so wasn’t really that much of a leap.)
When the customers asked what the dish was called, he told them “Nacho’s Especiales.” Within days patrons were clamoring for “Nacho’s Special” and Anaya was teaching other workers at the pair of restaurants he worked at to make them. He also soon began experimenting with variations on the original, such as including refried beans and guacamole.
It should be noted here that the original date of these first nachos is disputed- it was claimed both in the aforementioned 1954 San Antonio Express interview as well as in a Corpus Christi Times interview in 1974 that Ignacio said he first whipped them up in 1940. But in both cases this wasn’t a direct quote from him, just these articles claiming he said that. If this is true, it would call into question the commonly stated “soldier” or “soldiers’ wives” angle as Fort Duncan wasn’t made into a military base in WWII until 1942 and Eagle Pass Army Airfield not activated until that same year. However most sources, including Ignacio Jr., state the correct year was actually 1943.
Whatever the case, during the 1940s the appetizer began to spread along Texas/Mexico border towns under the name “Nachos Especiales,” with one of the first known documented instance of this occurring in 1949 in A Taste of Texas, by Jane Trahey,
“There’s a little restaurant in the small Mexican town of Villa Acuna that serves some of the finest food in the world. For part of World War II, Mr. Julian Cross, managing editor of the San Antonio Express, was stationed on the Rio Grande border. One night a small group of officers, one terribly homesick, decided to visit Pedro, their favorite waiter there. Like all Latins, Pedro just couldn’t stand unhappiness. He did everything but stand on his head to cheer his morose uniformed guest. When nothing, including the Martinis, worked, Pedro left. Sometime later he returned carrying a large dish of Nachos Especiales. “These Nachos,” said Pedro, “will help El Capitan—soon he will forget his troubles for nachos make one romantic.””
It goes on to give the recipe as:
1 pkg. Mexican tortillas
A small hunk of American cheese
A bottle or can of pickled peppers (preferably jalapenos)
Cut tortillas into small triangular pieces, place in a pan and put into a medium hot oven to toast. Remove from the oven when barely crisp, put a small piece of cheese on each piece of tortilla. Replace in the oven until the cheese is melted; remove from oven and garnish each piece with a small slice of pickled pepper and serve.
A year before this, “nachos” appeared in the San Antonio Light in an advertisement for the Latin Quarter Mexican Restaurant:
“NACHOS” (Mexican Hors-D’-Oeuvres)…35c
Here is a real dainty! Golden fried tortilla strips, deliciously spiced, topped with mellow, melted cheese and garnished with chili jalapeno bits.
As for Anaya Sr. himself, he would go on to open his own restaurant, Nacho’s Restaurant, in Piedras Negras where Nacho’s Especiales were featured on the menu.
By 1959, nachos would make the jump to the west coast thanks to a young woman named Carmen Rocha who moved from San Antonio to L.A. with her husband. Since San Antonio is less than a three-hour drive from Piedras Negras, she had grown up with nachos. When Rocha got a job serving at El Cholo Mexican Restaurant on Los Angeles’ Western Avenue, she told the chef’s about the easy and quick to make tasty snack she used to eat as a teen called nachos. Decades later, El Cholo had become an L.A. institution, thanks in large part to Rocha and her nachos. When she died in 2008, even El Cholo regular Jack Nicholson grieved, telling the LA Times, “Carmen was wonderful, to me and to everybody… It’s a community loss.”
While Rocha’s introduction of nachos to the west coast surely contributed to its popularization, there’s no bigger influence on how nachos are consumed today than Frank Liberto, “The Father of Nachos”. He’s the man who introduced so-called “fast food” or “stadium” nachos- the ones with the gooey, yellow “cheese”- to sports stadiums and movie theaters. With his family originally hailing from Sicily, Liberto took over the San Antonio-based family food business from his father “Rico” Liberto selling concessions. In fact, the company was perhaps the first American concession-focused business, even pioneering the selling of peanuts at the circus.
As for the tale of the evolution and popularization of nachos, at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington in 1976, Liberto’s company “Rico’s” sold the very first “stadium nachos” featuring a jalapeno cheese sauce Liberto had come up with. The advantage here over melting grated cheese on the chips was that the gooey “cheese” sauce could be ladled up quickly and had a long shelf life.
Despite the sauce not actually being cheese (this according to the FDA), it was an immediate hit and outsold every other food item at the stadium in 1976. Even better for concessions business was that nacho sales also resulted in a large spike in beverage purchases, as you might expect from people consuming a sauce with jalapeno juice in it. Just as importantly, the introduction of nachos didn’t seem to negatively impact things like hot dog and popcorn sales. (This latter potential issue was a big concern Liberto frequently heard when first pitching his nachos to various event groups.)
Within a year of this, with an eye on moving more into the lucrative movie theater concessions industry, Liberto purchased Associated Popcorn, which was a major supplier to various theaters in Texas. This, combined with John Rowley of United Artist Theatres discovering Liberto’s nachos, saw gooey-cheesed nachos hit the concessions stands in theaters across the state.
As for how nachos became more mainstream nation-wide, this is thanks to their being served at the Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium in 1978. At the time, the Cowboys were known as “America’s Team” and often played host to ABC’s Monday Night Football. The announcing team for those games included the legendary Howard Cosell. The story goes (at least according to Liberto’s son) that while trying to fill dead air during a blowout, Cosell groped around for things to talk about and remarked on how delicious his snack was- these new “nachos.” Whether that was really his original motivation or not, Cosell did indeed begin to describe plays on-air as a “nacho,” as in “that was a nacho run” and extolled the virtues of the tasty snack frequently. Not long after this, “stadium nachos” were in every stadium across the country thanks to Cosell’s near constant promotion of the word – and food – nacho.
Unfortunately, “Nacho” Anaya Sr. died in 1975, so was never able to see a version of his culinary invention being talked about in front of a nationally televised audience, nor see it become a hit nation-wide. Today, there’s reportedly a bronze plaque up in Piedras Negras that honors the creator of this “Mexican hors d’oeuvre”. Additionally, October 21st is considered International Day of the Nacho. No matter the day or the place, however, according to Anaya’s granddaughter in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News in 2002, nachos today just don’t taste as good as the original. She states, “The chips are different. They’re not homemade chips like he used to do. Or maybe it’s the hands of the chef.”
Speaking of tortilla chips. Let’s talk about the flavored variety and in particular, the pinnacle of tortilla chip godliness, the Dorito.
On this one, a blessed of the light man named Archibald Clark West was born to Scottish immigrants in Indiana in 1914. With his mother too poor to take care of him, he was raised in a Masonic home after his father passed away. In a true “American dream” story, West was able to take a step above his impoverished roots when he was offered a scholarship to Franklin College. He graduated in 1936 with a degree in business and went on to serve in the navy during World War II.
When he returned from war, he put his degree to use by working as a traveling sales representative and then worked on advertising campaigns in New York for Jell-O. By 1960, he found himself working for Fritos in Dallas, Texas. That’s when his fortunes really took off.
The idea for Doritos was conceived in Disneyland, of all places. It wasn’t West who actually first made them, either. The original Doritos were made in Casa de Fritos, a restaurant owned by the Fritos founder, Elmer Doolin. The restaurant was located in Frontierland and served standard Tex-Mex, with every meal boasting a complimentary bag of Fritos. The restaurant was a hit, but it didn’t make its own tortillas, a job which was contracted out to Alex Foods. It was a salesman from Alex Foods who saw discarded tortillas at Casa de Fritos and told the cook he should fry them up and make tortilla chips out of them, rather than just throw them out. Because tortilla chips weren’t yet made by Fritos, and Fritos themselves were given out with the meals, Casa de Fritos hadn’t thought to offer them like other Mexican restaurants did.
The cook did as he advised and used his own special blend of seasoning and the chips were a hit. The restaurant put them on the menu as a regular item but didn’t inform the Frito Company of the change.
About a year later, in 1961, West walked by the restaurant on a family vacation and noticed the chips. He was then the vice president of marketing for the company and felt like he had stumbled upon a goldmine. When he returned to work, he pitched the idea of selling packaged tortilla chips—a happy medium between Lay’s thin potato chips and Fritos’ thick, curly corn chips. His bosses weren’t initially convinced.
Not to be deterred, he managed to finagle some funding from other projects the company was working on, which allowed him to make and test out the product, first making taco flavoured and plain corn flavoured, the latter of which remained tied for his favourite throughout his life owing to being good for dipping. (His other favourite was “Cool Ranch” which, I mean, obviously.) After selling them locally and seeing the chips hugely popular, the other execs were finally convinced and decided to move forward with selling them nationally by 1966.
West retired from his position as vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay in 1971, but remained committed to Doritos and even continued testing out new flavours over the years. He died in 2011, just a year after his wife of 69 years passed away- in his case dying of complications of vascular surgery at the ripe old age of 97, having risen from a child of poor immigrants to the force behind one of the best-loved crunchy snacks in the world. At his funeral, his family tossed Doritos chips into his grave so that his favourite snack could always be with him.
If you’re wondering what flavour was used at his funeral service, his daughter Jana stated, “It [was] just the plain. Otherwise people [would] say, ‘Thanks Jana, I’ve got nacho all over my hand.’”
Incidentally, while West was working at Fritos, he became friends with a Mr. David Pace of Pace’s Salsa and Picante Sauces. Sales were slow for Pace at the time, and he turned to West, knowing he had some advertising experience, for advice. West made the simple suggestion of having the products placed beside chips, as they are commonly today, rather than in the ketchup aisle with other tomato-based items. Pace followed that advice and sales figures immediately got insanely spicy compared to their mild numbers before.
Moving swiftly on, let’s now talk about the black specks on tortilla chips, and why some potato chips are green and why those aren’t wholly the best for you to eat.
First, the specks. Now, I hope you’re sitting down for this next bit of information, but the staple ingredient for both corn and tortilla chips is corn. An ear of corn is made up of individual rows of kernels, and each kernel is attached to the cob via the tip cap located at the very bottom of the kernel.
Strip away the tip cap and the hilum is revealed. The hilum is what seals the base of each kernel and draws in water and other nutrients needed during the growth process. The hilum, in a way, serves as a sort of umbilical cord for the kernel. Once the kernels detach from the cob, the hilum remains as a type of scar from where it was connected.
The hilum starts out clear then progresses to light green, then light brown, and finally black, which shows up on more mature kernels. It is these mature kernels that are used to make corn and tortilla chips. Since these specks of hilum do not disappear during the cooking process, they remain visible in the final food product. In addition to corn and tortilla chips, the black hilum can also typically be seen on taco shells, corn tortillas, and other similar foods made with corn. But, to conclude, in some sense, when you are eating the black specs, you are eating the little ground up and murdered baby corn’s umbilical cords…
On to green potato chips! As another bit of shocking information, potatoes grow underground and, thus, are generally not getting any direct sunlight to the potato part of the plant. However, sometimes some part of the potato does ultimately get exposed to sunlight, and as a result of this, chlorophyll develops.
So why are green potato chips sometimes called poisonous? After all, nothing wrong with eating chlorophyll. Well, the answer lies in a glycoalkaloid that is also found in potato plants called solanine, which otherwise is produced in the above ground portions of the plant, and provides some protection from insects and the like. For the potatoes themselves lucky enough to get some sunlight and green of their own, this also ends up in the glorious potato chips created from these potatoes.
Granted, the amount of solanine in that green potato chip is minimal. So much so that you’d have to eat a couple dozen green potatoes in a day to suffer ill effects from this. And, for reference, a medium potato produces roughly 40 chips, so you’d need to eat several hundred green potato chips to suffer ill effects, which is unlikely… I mean, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that eating a few hundred potato chips in a day is totally not a thing any of us ever do… *nervous chuckle*
BUT, of course, they won’t typically be green, and particularly less likely in modern times to encounter any green potato chip as manufacturing processes have become more refined in relatively recent years to filter out such unwanted green potatoes and chips.
All that said, you’ll definitely not want to eat the leaves of the other above ground portions of the potato plant themselves, as their solanine levels are much higher. But, of course, why eat the leaves when what’s down below is so delicious?
And finally today, let’s talk Pringles, shall we? One Dr. Fredric Baur was the one that originally came up with the “saddle” shape (hyperbolic paraboloid) of the fried dough that is Pringles (note: not baked, as many seem to think). While employed by Proctor & Gamble as a chemist, he was assigned the task of finding a way to get around the problem of stale and broken chips in bags and thus worked on finding an alternative “chip” and container. That said, he was not the one to ultimately bring Pringles out as a commercial product. The “chip” he came up with just didn’t taste very good and he was eventually assigned a different task.
Several years later, Alexander Liepa picked up where Baur left off and managed to improve on the flavor of the fried dough. Thus, he is generally considered the inventor of Pringles, even though in reality he built off Baur’s work. The product the two came up with, though, is not actually technically considered a potato “chip”.
They were, however, originally called “Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips”. However, Pringles contain only about 42% potato based content, with most of the rest being from wheat starch and various types of flour, including from corn and rice. Thus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made them change the name because their product didn’t technically meet the definition of a potato chip. As such, they were only allowed to use the word “chip” in very restrictive ways. Specifically, if they wanted to continue to use “chip”, they were only allowed to say “Pringles Potato Chips Made From Dried Potatoes”. Not being too fond of this requirement, the company changed the name slightly, using “potato crisps”, rather than “potato chips”. Today, of course, most people just know them as “Pringles”.
Jumping across the pond to Merry Ol’ England, while Proctor & Gamble initially argued that Pringles were in fact “chips” in the U.S., they took a different tact in the U.K. In order to avoid a 17.5% Value Added Tax (VAT) in the U.K., Proctor & Gamble stated that Pringles should be considered a cake, rather than a “crisp”. Their argument was that since only 42% of the product was made from potato and the fact that it is fashioned from dough, that it should be considered a cake and not be subject to the tax put on chips. After all, that’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had previously made them change from being a chip to a “crisp”. The company initially won in High Court and were briefly considered a cake in the U.K. However, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs appealed the decision and, in 2009, the ruling was reversed and the company had to start paying the VAT. Sadly, they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too.
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