Potato chips are America’s homegrown snack

Americans consumer more than 1.5 billion pounds
Potato chips are America’s homegrown snack
Madison-based Red Dot Foods Inc. became the leading snack food maker in the Midwest by 1961.

Potato chips are one of the most popular snacks in the U.S. We consume more than 1.5 billion pounds every year, but once they were a luxury food only available at restaurants. Folklore says that George Crum, a half-African-American, half-Native American chef, invented the potato chip in 1853. He cooked at Moon’s Lake House, a posh resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. Crum was angered when guest Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his fried potatoes were cut too thick. George returned to the kitchen, sliced a new batch paper thin and cooked them until they were brown and crisp. What the chef intended as an insult thoroughly delighted the Commodore, as Vanderbilt was known publicly. While this origin story is unlikely to be true, potato chips were called “Saratoga chips” for many years.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, thanks to modern manufacturing and packaging equipment, that potato chips became an everyday treat. During the Depression, Herman Lay traveled in his Ford Model A from Atlanta to Nashville hawking packets of chips from the trunk of his car. In 1938, Lay opened his first manufacturing facility in Atlanta. That same year, Madison started producing its own potato chips.

Frederick J. Meyer put himself through college by selling salty tidbits called “Korn Parchies.” After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1932, he, along with his wife Kathryne Meyer – who was an equal business partner – decided to expand his distribution of packaged foods. Meyer’s biggest sellers were potato chips, so six years later he began manufacturing them himself. Sold in bags and tins emblazoned with the company’s mascot, Ta-To the Clown, the brand quickly became a local favorite. Located on East Washington Avenue after a brief time on Division Avenue, Red Dot Foods Inc. would eventually expand to include seven factories, multiple potato farms and 83 warehouses. By 1961, Red Dot was the leading maker of snack foods in the Midwest. That year, Meyer made a decision to merge with the giant H.W. Lay Co. (Four days after the agreement was sealed, Meyer committed suicide at his Maple Bluff home.) Lay’s produced Red Dot potato chips for 9 years before selling the brand in 1970. Eventually, the Madison facility closed in 1973.

The potato chip industry, however, continued to thrive and transform. In 1961, Frito-Lay introduced Ruffles. Flavored varieties followed the next decade (the Irish actually get credit for that). In 1954, Joe “Spud” Murphy, who made Tayto Crisps, was the first to successfully add seasonings – the first two flavors were Cheese & Onion and Salt & Vinegar. Shortly thereafter, barbecue-flavored potato chips appeared in the U.S. More recently, kettle chips – cooked in small batches rather than fried on a conveyor built – have recruited new fans.

In 2012, Wisconsin native Christine Ameigh returned from California to run Slide Food Cart & Catering. Her homemade chips became foodie superstars. A premium product, they are hand-cut, cooked in canola oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Slide has added a second food cart and Ameigh sells her chips through several local retailers and restaurants.

After almost 100 years, potato chips, plain and fancy, thick and thin, have evolved from a cooking novelty to a snacking staple.