BALLSTON SPA – Local lore has always abounded surrounding Saratoga’s ties to the much-loved crunchy, crispy snack: the potato chip.
Some of those stories will be celebrated on Saturday with the Saratoga Chips and Beer Festival at Brookside Museum, home of the Saratoga County History Center. Featuring craft beers, hard ciders and sodas as well as plenty of chip varieties to try, the festival coincides with the exhibit “In the Saratoga Style: Potato Chips and Their Regional Folklore.”
The exhibit features everything from potato chip packaging and mandoline slicers to photographs from the turn of the century, most from the collection of Alan Richer, who is known as “The Toga Chip Guy.”
A self-professed potato chip historian, the former General Electric tax attorney became interested in the savory snack’s history around 2004 when he was looking for art to embellish his newly purchased Saratoga Lake home. He connected with photographer Michael Noonan, who told him about Saratoga’s connections to the storied potato chip. From there, Richer’s interest was piqued and he met with other chip history enthusiasts and started building on his collection and pool of knowledge on the subject.
Over the years, he’s consulted for and appeared on the History Channel show “The Food That Built America” and has been interviewed on ABC, CBS, Fox and other networks.
As many Saratogians know, there are a few prevailing stories of how the potato chip may have been invented in Spa City around 1853. Two involve George Crum, a Black and Native American chef who worked at Moon’s Lake House. It is said that a disgruntled customer complained about Crum’s fries and in retaliation, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as he could and fried them in lard, which it turned out the customer loved. Another theory is that Kate Wicks, Crum’s sister, invented the chip by accident.
However, there is evidence to suggest that the history of the chip goes further back. William Kitchiner, an English optician and amateur cook, wrote a cookbook that was published in 1817 and had a recipe that seemed quite similar to modern potato chips. There’s an 1837 edition of the book included in the exhibit.
“I do think that there is a case to be made for what I call parallel invention. The idea that multiple people can come up with an idea and have a similar concept but no one is necessarily stealing it from someone else or ripping off someone else,” said Anne Clothier, the director of education at the museum, who helped curate the exhibit.
“The bottom line is nobody knows for sure [who invented them] but it was definitely popularized in Saratoga,” Richer said.
Many of the packaging for the earliest commercially produced chips specifically said “Saratoga chips” and that was the case across the country up until the 1920s when that fell out of fashion. In his travels, Richer has also discovered some mandoline slicers that reference Saratoga; two are on view at Brookside.
He also found that the chip industry was among the first to use billboards and bring food advertising to television. Companies also used celebrities like Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” to popularize their product.
The exhibit includes a third of Richer’s collection, as well as other pieces from the museum, and was curated by Clothier and SCHC Trustee Fred Sober.
For those heading to the festival on Saturday, it might pay off to take a look at the exhibit before playing potato chip trivia, one of the activities on the docket for the day. There will also be a bonfire, s’mores and a silent auction to support the museum.
John Kirk and Trish Miller will bring their “fiery fiddle tunes” to the festival as well. The beverages will be provided by DeCrescente Distributing Company and include Brown’s Joann IPA, Druthers All In, Wolf Hollow District 6, Indian Ladder Dry Cider, ADK Farm Cider, sodas and others. There will also be a Brookside Brew, which is a non-alcoholic autumn punch.
Tickets are $20 in advance, and $25 on the day of the event, while designated drivers will be $10. Proceeds from the festival go toward the museum’s fundraising efforts.
The festival runs from 1-5 p.m. on Saturday at Brookside, which is located at 21 Fairground Avenue in Ballston Spa. For tickets and more information visit brooksidemuseum.org.