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I should start today’s post with a bit of a disclaimer – while this tale is told as the truth, the exact date details are difficult to confirm. However, most references I could find stated the date as 24 August 1853, so here goes.

On the above date, Railroad magnate Commadore Cornelius Vanderbilt went dining at the Moon Lake House, a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. He ordered french fries, but found the fries he received too thick, bland and soggy, so he sent them back to the kitchen. George Crum, the chef at the Moon Lake House, wasn’t impressed by what he considered to be an overly fussy customer, so he went overboard to address his concerns – he sliced the fries paper-thin, fried them to a crisp and seasoned them with a generous helping of salt. Much to his amazement, Vanderbilt loved the the crispy chips, so much so that the restaurant decided to add them as a regular menu item, under the name ‘Saratoga Chips’.

A few years later, in 1860, chef Crum opened his own restaurant, and he took pride in serving his ‘signature dish’, placing potato chips in baskets on every table.

Crispy, crunchy potato chips – not the healthiest snack around, but we cannot seem to get enough of them.
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Despite the popularity of Crum’s invention, no-one recognised it’s potential as a mass-produced, off-the-shelf snack – it remained a restaurant delicacy until 1926, when Mrs Scudder began mass-producing potato chips packaged in wax paper bags. In 1938, Herman Lay started producing Lay’s Potato Chips, the first successful national brand in the US.

The rest, as they say, is history – chips (or crisps, as the Brits like to call them) have taken over the world, with the global chip market in 2005 generating total revenues of more than US$16 billion. That’s more than a third of the total savoury snack market for the year.

Of course, being deep-fried and doused in salt, chips aren’t exactly a health snack. They have been identified as one of the leading contributors to long-term weight gain, as well as being linked to heart disease. In response to these issues, potato chips companies are investing huge amounts in research and development of new, more health-conscious products. Frito-Lay, for example, have reportedly invested more than $400 million in new product development, including techniques to reduce the salt content in Lay’s potato chips without compromising taste.

Now flavour is one thing, but did you know that the crunch produced when we bite into a chip, also plays a significant role in our perception of the snack? According to a New York Times article, a team of psychologists at Oxford University conducted an experiment where they equipped test subjects with sound-blocking headphones, and made them bite into potato chips in front of a microphone. In different test runs, using the exact same chips, the sound of the crunch was processed in different ways and passed back to the testers via the earphones. Taking their perception of the unaltered sound as the benchmark, they found that when the crunchy sound was amplified, testers considered the chips to taste fresher and crispier, while muting the crunch resulted in the same chips being rated as less crispy and stale.

Hmmm, all this talk about crunchy chips is making me hungry – I can definitely do with a bag of good old Salt & Vinegar chips right about now!

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