Detail from Miracle Chips®, 2010, by John Baldessari
By Chris Offutt
I love potatoes in all their forms—even raw—but especially hash browns, latkes, French fries, baked potatoes, soufflés, puffs, pastries, and homefries. And vodka. Don’t get me started on vodka. Please don’t! The last time I imbibed potato liquor I wound up hiring a bicycle taxi to pedal five people to my mother’s house for a nightcap. Mom was delighted; the taxi-cyclist quite a bit less so.
The word “potato” comes from the Taíno word batata, which evolved to Spanish patata, and finally the English word “potato.” I much prefer the evocative French term of pomme de terre, meaning “apple of the earth.” This generous designation grants a higher status—the burnished apple with all its attendant glory.
Idioms involving potatoes are often pejorative: couch potato, small potatoes, dropped like a hot potato. My goal is to rectify this unfair politicization by becoming a literary Johnny Potato Eye, wandering America planting potatoes for the future of our species. This essay is my first salvo into the shallow furrows of potato meadows.
I consider myself fortunate to be alive during the renaissance of the lowly spud, the Solanum tuberosum, making me an avowed “tuberist.” The local Kroger, country stores, gas stations, and fancy food joints offer multiple variations of my favorite snack food. New chips proliferate more often than David Bowie reinvented himself. He never released a weak record, but awful chips abound: Dill Pickle, Hamburger, Steak & Eggs, Biscuit & Gravy, Chicken & Waffles, Home Run Hot Dog, Cajun Squirrel, Butter Garlic Scallop, and Bacon Mac & Cheese. Eager aficionados of chip culture have also endured baked chips, a dreadful concept. Low-fat chips entered the fray, typically including extra salt to make up for the lost oil, while unsalted chips are greasy as possum meat.
Potato chips have become so popular that manufacturers compete using clever marketing on the bag itself. The standard trope is a means to distinguish their product from all the others as if the chips were designed by a gourmet, carefully assembled from the best raw material. One common element is the insistence that the chips in question are cooked in single batches. After careful and intensive research, I’ve learned that all chips are cooked in single batches. It’s far too cost-prohibitive to make them one at a time. What’s important is how big the damn batch is! A 200-gallon vat of month-old oil is still a “single batch.” Equally irritating are trendy catchphrases such as “organic growing” and “sustainable harvest” and “ecologically sound.” These are potato chips, not luxury furs or koi fish.
(I once knew an actor who spent five thousand dollars for a koi pond, and another ten thousand for a single fish. He hosted a party to celebrate his acquisition, then watched in horror as a hawk dropped from the sky and took the fish. I laughed like the dickens and was never invited back to his house. Actors . . . They receive a great deal of attention for people who speak in sentences someone else writes for them.)
As with most obsessive interests, my personal relationship with the potato chip began in childhood. A hot school lunch cost a quarter. With four kids, Dad deemed five bucks a week too steep a price to pay. My mother packed a meal for me in a paper sack: lunch meat on light bread, an apple, and a tiny bag of potato chips.
For twelve years I walked a footpath through the woods to school, mostly downhill, often at a fast run. My pace jostled the bag in such a way that the sandwich wrapped concavely around the apple like a hand over a cueball, and reduced the chips to slim, shattered shards. Mom expected me to use the same paper bag for two weeks. They often didn’t last, especially in rain. I began carrying my lunch in my pockets, which preserved the chips—unless I fell. Unfortunately I fell at least twice a week. I learned to roll forward, taking the weight on my shoulder, hip, and forearms in order to protect my precious cargo of chips. I’m still an excellent faller.
In my twenties and thirties I went through the economic drought years necessary to a young writer. It was my own personal Dark Ages of no chips, a private potato famine. Early medieval monks preserved literacy by making illuminated manuscripts, producing books so rare that they were chained to a reading table to prevent theft. Had I lived then, I’d have no doubt pioneered the illuminated potato chip, carefully painting and writing small stories, one chip at a time, becoming the oracle of the spud at the monastery of the tater. My own sacrifice paid off—as a middle-aged midlist writer, I can afford all the chips I want. Unfortunately, my doctor disagrees. Instead of eating them, I research them, which keeps my cholesterol low.
The potato was originally grown and harvested by pre-Inca people in Peru and Bolivia. Spanish Conquistadors killed and enslaved the populace but thoughtfully spared the fruits and vegetables. (United Fruit took a similar approach in Central America, with slightly less bloodshed.) The conquering Spaniards brought potatoes back to Europe, where Sir Walter Raleigh grew them in Ireland. The Inca got their revenge a couple hundred years later during the great potato famine in Europe. Around a million people starved to death when a blight hit the crops. More than a million Irish immigrated to the USA where they took the toughest jobs nobody wanted, becoming policemen, firemen, and priests. The less savory became politicians, outlaws, and writers. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am three-quarters Irish and the rest Appalachian mutt.)
The origin of the potato chip is shrouded in mystery, much like the invention of the wheel or the constuction of the ancient pyramids. Many legends have accrued. In 1973 the St. Regis Paper Company manufactured bags for potato chips. Part of their advertising campaign insisted that chips were originally known as “Saratoga Crunch Chips.” Three years later the Snack Food Association held its annual convention. At this austere gathering in Saratoga Springs, New York, it was decreed that a local restaurant, Moon Lake House, had invented the potato chip in 1853. According to an article in the Watertown Daily Times, the shipping and railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt had complained to a waiter that his French fries were too thick. He sent them back to the kitchen. The irritated chef sliced his potatoes extremely thin, fried them to a crisp, and salted them. Vanderbilt loved them!
This anecdote is politely termed “apocryphal,” which traditionally means an outright fabrication. In the absence of corroboration, the story mainly serves to promote potato chips through association with a rich industrialist. Other people are credited with originating the chip, including the chef George Crum, his assistant Kate Wicks, manager Hiram Thomas, and restaurant owner Cary Moon. Despite the murky origin, it’s clear that Saratoga Springs is trying to claim the potato chip! This honor was challenged by a restaurateur in Troy, New York, who said “Old Flora,” an African-American cook, invented the snack. The feud became so heated that in August 1882, chip rival Cary Moon wrote a letter to the Troy Daily Times saying that he’d never heard of Flora and believed she was “base fabric of the brain.” (No one really knows what that means.) In 1893 the New York Times failed to set the matter straight with its assertion that the chip was invented by Cary Moon’s second wife, a woman with the phenomenally cool name of Freelove Moon.
Unfortunately for Saratoga Springs, Troy, Freelove, and Vanderbilt, the first recipe for the potato chip had already appeared thirty years earlier in an 1822 British cookbook: The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner. Two years later, Mary Randolph published The Virginia House-Wife and included a recipe for potato chips.
This historic information was overlooked by a potato chip cookbook privately printed in 1977. Marylou Whitney, the fourth wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, grew up in Kansas and had the good fortune to marry into the most prominent family in the USA. The happy couple met when Mr. Whitney produced The Missouri Traveler, a Hollywood picture, and married one of the stars. By all accounts her film performance was of such a caliber that she devoted the rest of her life to her hobbies of raising roses and thoroughbred horses. She also managed to find the time to produce her hand-written pamphlet, The Potato Chip Cookbook, published by the Maple Hill Press in Lexington, Kentucky, my mother’s hometown. (Mom recently told me that she read a book about Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney and was not impressed by her views of Kentucky.)
Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney’s handwriting is highly legible, with looping strokes of the pen and a flaring grace. Her prose contains a personal tone, affable and warm. She is disarmingly honest in her introduction, writing of Saratoga Springs: “We have a summer home there, and spend the delightful month of August at that cool and attractive place. We go there not only to watch our horses race at the charming old track, but to partake of the mineral baths and water and to enjoy the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra.”
Discerning the target audience of her cookbook is difficult, since most people have other tasks during August—like working a job. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote of the very rich: “They are different from you and me.” (Yes, they invent recipes such as Moon Balls.)
Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney expresses love for potatoes but is also diet conscious. On page eight of her recipe book she writes: “I try to avoid them three times a day and settle for them for one meal, as I’m afraid of getting fat.” I’ve read this sentence several times and sought consultation from scholars. We each independently drew the same conclusion—that Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney ate four meals per day, one of which included potatoes. Perhaps she was influenced by the dietary traditions of hobbits, who enjoy a second breakfast.
I’ve always wondered what truly motivated her effort to produce the cookbook. The family was not in need of publicity. They have a museum in New York and a university in Nashville, for crying out loud! I deeply suspect some hidden agenda on Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney but am at a loss as to what that might be. If my wife suddenly wrote a cookbook that ended with an anecdote about how “Moon Balls” made me smile, I might suspect that she was trying to compensate for some personal mischief. All men have their petty fears and jealousies. My worst is that my wife will become romantically involved with a younger food writer, perhaps one with a working knowledge of Moon Balls.
The most curious aspect of the cookbook is the dedication itself: “To all of the descendents [sic] of the founder of the potato chip, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.” The strict definition of “founder” is a person who manufactures metal objects at a foundry. The term has evolved to mean someone who establishes an organization, such as a monastery for illuminated manuscripts. According to Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney, the potato chip is the only food that has a founder. This concept confounded me to the point that it entered my sleep.
The night after reading her cookbook I had a dream in which I learned about the “true founder” from reading the back of a bag of potato chips. During the dream I speculated how it could be possible to read words that did not actually exist. They seemed to appear as I read, and I awoke with full memory of the advertising. I rose from bed and transcribed it. I only wish the dream had included Freelove Moon into the narrative. Hopefully she, or at least her wonderful name, will appear another night.
The Cook’s Oracle
William Kitchiner (1822)
Potatoes Fried in Slices or Shavings
Peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping.
The Potato Chip Cookbook
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (1977)
With an ice cream scoop, make round balls of vanilla ice cream. Roll them in crushed potato chips. Serve with hot butterscotch sauce. Also, make chocolate ice cream balls, roll them in the chip crumbs and serve with hot fudge sauce. Top with whipped cream and a cherry!
The Ad Copy
We’ve been growing potatoes on the same family land for 150 years. My great-great-grandfather, Homer Finkle, came to this country at age fourteen from England. He owned a pair of boots, trousers, and one shirt. In his pocket he had a single potato given to him by his dying mother in Northumberland. ‘Take this,’ she said. ‘It will make you happy.’ The potato began to sprout on the damp trip across the sea. Alone aboard the ship, sleeping in a barrel suspended by rope below deck, young Homer viewed the potato as his family. Each day he caressed his pocket potato, confiding his hopes and fears, making sure it got some air. When he arrived in the New World, he planted it. All of our chips are descended from brave Homer and his migrating potato.
“We still follow Homer’s example of supreme care for the potato. Our harvest methods include singing to the crop as we gently remove it from the organic soil. Each one is hand-inspected, and only the best are culled to make chips. Our slicing crew uses ancient Samurai techniques to rapidly cut each slice the same one-sixteenth-inch width. Our trained experts dry them on sustainable cotton cloth, and closely inspect each slice for flaws. We use 100% organic oil to fry the potatoes in small batches of fifty. Sea salt is lightly sprinkled until each chip has a slight twinkle in the light.
“From Homer’s pocket to your home, we are proud to provide the finest potato chip in the world! Finkle’s, the chip that twinkles!”
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