They're the perfect snack food, but how well do you really know the chips you're munching on?
1. Their famous origin story may not have happened.
According to culinary legend, the potato chip was born when Saratoga Springs, N.Y. chef George Crum presented the first plate of chips to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1853. Crum was trying to get back at Vanderbilt, who kept insisting that his french-fried potatoes weren’t thin enough. Sick of having the dish sent back, Crum sliced a fresh batch of potatoes paper-thin, cooked them until they were too crisp to be picked up by a fork, and had them brought out to Vanderbilt, expecting to get a rise out of him. Instead, the railroad tycoon loved the dish, and a new tradition was born. But as some sources have noted, this story is probably more folk tale than fact.
2. “Chips” came before “crisps.”
The story of Crum and Vanderbilt may be folklore, but make no mistake: Americans own the naming rights to this beloved snack (there is an 1822 British recipe for “potatoes fried in slices or shavings,” but those were sliced a quarter of an inch thick, or just shaved into the oil). Chips really do trace their roots back to Saratoga, and so all successive iterations were beholden to the original “Saratoga chips,” which eventually reached a national audience thanks to one Nashville-based Herman Lay.
3. They were nearly a casualty of World War II.
When the United States entered World War II, potato chips were declared a “nonessential food” that had to halt production immediately. Manufacturers balked at the idea, and protests convinced the War Production Board to back down. Thanks to these potato chip-loving patriots, potato chips sold better during and after the war than they ever had before.
4. We owe a debt to Laura Scudder, potato chip queen of California.
Before potato chips were mass-produced and marketed around the world, they were sold in bulk in mom-and-pop shops, where they were served out of wooden barrels or scooped from behind glass counters. It took one enterprising California woman to come up with the concept of pre-bagging the chips, both for freshness and transportability. Laura Scudder, who had opened a potato chip company in 1926, worked hard to perfect her idea. Originally made of waxed paper that was ironed by hand into grease-resistant packets, those first potato chip bags were the forerunners of today’s crinkly foil sacks.
5. Pringles aren’t potato chips.
They’re potato crisps. The cans of perfectly shaped snacks ran afoul with traditional chip makers almost as soon as they appeared on American shelves in 1968. The Potato Chip Institute International, a Cleveland-based representative of hundreds of chip makers, came out swinging against Pringles since Procter & Gamble’s new snack was made from, among other ingredients, dried potatoes rather than fresh spuds. The “potato chip war” remained hot for nearly a decade, with the Institute standing by its definition that a potato chip was a “slice of fresh, raw potato, deep fried in vegetable oil, salted, and packaged.” Eventually P&G gave up the fight and started calling Pringles “potato crisps.”
6. There’s more than just “air” in those bags.
Potato chip bags are only partially filled for a reason: The additional space adds cushioning to prevent breakage. The bags are also pumped full of nitrogen, which helps keeps the product fresher before opening.
7. “Crispy” and “crunchy” aren’t the same thing.
Professor William E. Lee of the University of South Florida may be the world’s top potato chip scientist. After years spent studying the unique crunch of potato chips and other salty snacks, by the early '90s Lee had established himself as the authority on what makes a chip satisfying to bite into. Lee has found that the sound of chomping on chips contributes to the pleasure you get from your snack. In the study “Analysis of Food Crushing Sounds During Mastication,” he found that chip eaters maximize the amount of sound they’re creating with each bite. Eaters who wore headphones that kept them from hearing the crunch of their chips grew bored with the snack more quickly. One important note: things that are crunchy tend to produce louder sounds and a much longer lasting sensation—they're generally still hard after 10 chews (like tortilla chips, for example). Crispy textures, on the other hand, last only a few bites and result in much higher-pitched noises.
8. They helped an Olympian on her way to greatness.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, possibly the greatest female athlete in history, came from humble beginnings before dominating college basketball and both the women’s heptathlon and long jump in multiple Olympic Games. Before she was decorated with a slew of gold, silver, and bronze medals, she was a nine-year-old who had recently come in last in her first race. Still, she swore to her friends she was going to make the Olympic track and field team someday.
The future champion wanted to start practicing immediately, but she didn’t have a soft landing place for her leaps. So she enlisted her sisters’ help and got creative. The siblings began visiting a local park to fill empty potato chip bags with sand. They ferried these loads home to create a makeshift jumping pit.
9. The world’s largest bag weighed as much as a small car.
The marketing slogan is true: When it comes to the salty, crispy, fried temptation that is a potato chip, you can't eat just one. No one was in danger of doing so on September 13, 2013, when Corkers Crisps set a new world record for the largest single bag of potato chips. The bag measured 18 feet tall and comfortably housed more than 2,515 pounds of chips – all right, crisps – all of which were cooked in a single batch, as per Guinness World Record regulations, over a 17-hour period. Cambridgeshire locals would have had no shortage of snacks that day.
10. Ridges are an engineering marvel.
In response to consumers who wanted a heftier chip that wouldn’t break when dipped in various sauces, manufacturers introduced the ruffled chip, which is a full four times thicker than a standard chip —and a whole lot sturdier.
11. No flavor is too weird.
With the wealth of flavored potato chips available today, it’s hard to imagine a past in which chips only came in one flavor: potato. Independent chip makers began seasoning their products sometime in the 1950s, and ever since, companies around the world have turned out varieties tailored to their local markets.
In the U.S., that means bestsellers like barbecue and sour cream & onion, as well as offbeat options like buffalo wing, dill pickle, and Old Bay crab seasoning. Overseas, the sky’s the limit: the UK indulges in prawn cocktail and roast beef flavors, while Greece favors oregano. Japan does a brisk trade in soy sauce, seaweed, and butter potato chips, and countless other countries sell chips flavored with paprika, cassava, mint, mayonnaise, hoisin duck, and, of course, “Cajun squirrel.”