Thursday, September 30, 2010


Still pursuing the global potato chip phenomenon, I found these at my local supermarket: Hawaiian Kettle Style, sweet Maui onion flavor.

Now I guess I never thought they’d be absolutely authentic, not least because they were manufactured by Tim’s Cascade Snacks of Algona, Washington.  Still, I tried them gamely enough, but I thought they were just terrible.  I couldn’t taste any onion at all, whether from Maui or anywhere else.  All I could taste was a kind of cloying sweetness.

A look at the list of ingredients on the pack explained why.  Of the top six ingredients, number three was dextrose, number six was sugar.  Onion powder was number four, though there was no mention of whether it was Maui onion powder.

There’s also salt and garlic and cheese and spices in there too, and maybe that adds up to umami, but I couldn’t taste any of them, just he cloying sweetness. Of course I believe in chacun a son gout, and I’m sure some people like their potato chips this sweet but I had to drench them in vinegar to make them palatable, which seemed to defeat the object of having flavoring in the first place.

Just to show that I do have my finger on the pulse (or somewhere), last Sunday’s New York Times magazine had a “Recipe Redux” for Saratoga Potatoes, 1905, by which they mean potato chips.  That name refers to the story, probably more of an urban myth, that potato chips were invented in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853 by one George Crum who was chef at the Moon Lake Lodge, a man part Native-American, part African-American, though in 1853 that can hardly have been how he thought of himself. 

According to legend, a customer in the restaurant kept complaining that the French fries were too thick and soggy, so, in an effort to annoy the customer even more, Crum cut them as thin as possible, so they’d be hard and crisp.  As is the way with these things, of course the customer loved them, and then many other customers loved them too, and Saratoga Chips started appearing on the restaurant menu.  The rest is history.

I’m not saying Crum didn’t serve up some very thin, crisp, fried potatoes in hopes of annoying his customer, but I can’t believe he invented them.  I think they’re one of those things that didn’t need inventing.  Once the potato was introduced to European cooks you know that somebody somewhere, probably many people in many places, would experiment with every size, shape and cooking method.  I mean, who “invented” mashed potatoes?

Some people claim that William Kitchener (above) is the godfather of the potato chip, because of a recipe that appears in his book, The Cook’s Oracle, first published in 1817.  The recipe is for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” which sounds about right, but he recommends the slices be a quarter inch thick, and his “shavings” are “cut round and round, as you would peel a lemon.”  The resulting artifact would be pretty good, I think, but I’m not sure you could really call it a chip.

This is a shame in some ways, because Kitchiner is one of history’s greatest great food eccentrics, and it would be nice if the world at large attached some important innovation to him.  The one that actually applies, that he was the first food writer to give quantities in his recipes is so universal as to have become invisible.  And in fact he seems generally to have been more of a collector of recipes than an inventor, so potato shavings were in any case invented by someone else.

Kitchiner was a repository for all kinds of culinary lore, though there are times when he wasn’t very discriminating.  He tells us, or at least quotes without question, that the Chinese eat dog, Tartars eat horse, and Greenlanders eat “garbage and train oil.”

He also gives us, as grotesque as it is improbable, a recipe for “how to roast and eat a goose alive.”  Essentially it involves plucking a live goose and having it flap around in a circle of flame for a while, so that it cooks but doesn’t expire.  This sounds like nonsense doesn’t it?  Roasting a goose in a hot oven can take a few hours, having it flap around in open flame would never work.  Either the goose would live or the goose would roast, but I don’t see how it could do both.

Kitchiner gets his recipe from Johann Jacob Wecker’s “Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art and Nature” first published in English in 1661, who attributes it to “Mizald.”  I think this is Antonius Mizaldus, a 16th century Parisian physician and botanist, who was also of the opinion that if sweet basil leaves were placed on a pile of dung to, it would become a nest of scorpions or asps.  So, not a man to be trusted, but Kitchiner doesn’t doubt him.  He just calls the method “diabolically cruel.”  Well yes.

 Incidentally, in that NYT article – it’s by Amanda Hesser – she writes of potato chips “they’re reached that late-mannerist ‘seasoning’ stage, which has produced such atrocities as sour-cream-and-onion flavored chips.”  I just can’t see the problem myself.  It could be much worse.  It could be live-roasted goose flavor.

And finally, just to explain the title of this post, The Cook's Oracle contains a recipe for Wow-Wow sauce, made from port, vinegar, pickled cucumbers or pick;ed walnut, mustard and mushroom ketchup.  Any one of those would make a fine late-mannerist seasoning, if you ask me.


  1. "cut round and round as you would peel a lemon." Perhaps Kitchener was really the inventor of the spiral cut potato, which I've seen at carnival food stalls.
    A whole potato is cut into a spiral shape and deep fried. It's a series of potato chips presented on a stick. It's quite brilliant really. Some have taken it one step further and presented it with a hot dog shoved through the centre of the spiral

  2. Shelora - yes I've seen those things too - but in pictures, never in life. I gather they're sometimes called tornado potatoes. I can't help wondering if the hotdog might be taking it just that little bit too far.