A Brief History Of (And A Short Ode To) The Crisp

A long time ago, in a century far, far away there lived some people in some places. The year was 1817 and it started on a Wednesday, it gave birth to Henry David Thoreau and it killed Jane Austen. As years go, it was a bit of a mixed bag, really.

During this year also, lived an Englishman named William Kitchiner. This man had many professions including optician, telescope inventor and amateur musician. If that wasn’t enough to make you feel like a huge underachiever, William was also a very good cook and a very good writer of words about the things he cooked. So good, in fact, that his book The Cook’s Oracle was a bestseller in England AND the United States. Nice one, Will.

The Cook’s Oracle was to be the holy grail of savoury snacking. It featured a recipe of William’s named “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” – the basis of crisps as we know them today. The recipe instructed readers to:

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.

A few years later, this recipe popped up in a few more United States cookbooks too, citing Kitchiner as the original source. Boom.

With great success comes great travel opportunity, and William travelled a lot promoting his wondrous cooking concoctions. On every trip, he took a portable cabinet of taste with him that included things like mustards and sauces. If you, like me, have ever stolen a sachet of ketchup or mayo from a fast food chain and kept it in your car ‘just in case’, you don’t have to listen to any abuse from your friends/partner/parents anymore. If it’s good enough for the Crisp Creator, it’s good enough for you.

The 20th century began just after the 19th century, and it brought big economic, technological and social change to the world. For all the crisps, the 20th century brought the opportunity to not just stay on chef-cooked plates, but to jump into the mouths of the many across the mass-market – as the home snack.

Mike-sell’s Potato Chip Company in Ohio claims to be the ‘oldest potato chip company in the United States’. Somewhat similarly, the Leominster Potato Chip Company in Massachusetts claims to be ‘America’s first potato chip manufacturer’. Since we don’t know who originally shotgunned it, we’ll just have to leave that there and accept that it could’ve been either one of them.

Fastforward to today. The global crisp industry generates huge amounts of money every year, reaching $46.1 billion and accounting for 35.5% of the total savoury snacks market in 2005. From their humble beginnings in a cookbook, potatoes fried in slices or shavings now live in their own colourful bags, and are celebrated in different shapes, sizes and flavours – all over the world.

It’s just like that saying: Where there’s a Will, there’s a Lay. 

Published by Emily Ash Powell

Writer of words & lover of brands.

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