A History of Crisps

‘And on the eighth day, God invented crisps.’ 

Or so goes one of the many origin stories of the beloved potato treat, some of which, to be quite frank, are utterly ludicrous. 

Why do we love them so? Well, there’s the deliciously simple combination of potato and fat, plus their ubiquitous presence in the public house, as the preferred companion to a lovely pint of ale. When, as an aside, we added a Crisp News section to the Deserter Pubcast, it quickly became a key feature, garnering contributions from across the salty snack world. 

Cannot take his eyes off them

Many countries claim the crisp as their own. The French have tried, of course they have. The United States too. 

In the American origin tale, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a fussy diner at an upstate New York restaurant kept sending his fries back because they weren’t thin enough. After a couple of unsatisfactory attempts, the chef cut wafer-thin slices of potato which he deep fried as a culinary middle finger to his grumpy guest. However, Vanderbilt loved them and the ’tater chip was born, right there in the good ol’ US of A, in 1853. 

I hate to be that guy, but… it never happened. Potato chips are as American as apple pie. That is to say, probably British. 

Crisps had already appeared in a best-selling recipe book, The Cook’s Oracle, in 1817, published in Britain and the United States and written by London celebrity chef, William Kitchiner. He’d peel the spud like an apple, slicing it into shavings, before drying and cooking them in lard or dripping, the beautiful dirty boy, before adding a little salt. 

Fair enough, the yanks were first to make money out of crisps, according to the hallowed Museum of Crisps. But crisps are not about money. They are about love. As in, I love crisps. 

Mikesell’s Potato Chips went into production in Ohio in 1910 and were sold unseasoned. Then in 1920 Smith’s began life in Cricklewood and took it up a notch, selling crisps in Britain with a sachet of salt. The game had changed. Or had it just got more fierce?

What a guy

Then, in 1954 a visionary emerged. The chosen one was known as Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy and he presided over Dublin snack prophets, Tayto, as they brought the first flavoured crisps, cheese and onion, to the world. It was a Eureka moment, like Newton’s falling apple, or Abba’s first ‘Ah-ha!’

The US did manage barbeque crisps in the mid-1950s but they became stuck in that groove, unable to break out into the freeform flavour experimentation. No other variety emerged in the US until the ’70s. They are basically savages. 

Nobel Prize for crisps

How do they get those myriad flavours into a crisp? Why, with gas chromatography of course. After Archer Martin and Richard Synge received a Nobel Prize for inventing partition chromatography in 1952, scientists were able to develop flavours using a gas chromatograph, a device that allowed them to grasp and seperate the chemical compounds behind complex flavours such as cheese, and indeed, onion, and imbue potatoes with them.

It’s heartening to know that just a few years after scientists developed the atomic bomb, they were able to do something to contribute to the happiness of mankind, or what was left of it. 

The Smith’s, Golden Wonder and Walkers eras

Smith’s continued to dominate the UK market for decades. Having started selling in pubs, they soon became a kids’ favourite at the sweet shop. Then, Golden Wonder, a Scottish crisp company, suddenly became big players in the cutthroat world of quality snacks with their own cheese and onion crisps, later claiming the Ploughman’s Lunch – that pub grub favourite – as their inspiration, not Tayto’s across the Irish Sea.

Smith’s responded with salt and vinegar, conjuring the magic of the chip shop. But Golden Wonder came back at them with innovation after innovation: pickled onion; smokey bacon; roast chicken; Oxo-flavoured crisps. The crisp world knew no boundaries, like deep-fried potato jazz.

Crisp machine

Smith’s began to look old-fashioned. They would continually retaliate and even though their Bovril crisps were far superior to Golden Wonder’s Oxo, the dye was cast. Golden Wonder had won the war of perception. 

That is, until Walkers outflanked the both of them. Founded as long ago as 1948 in Leicester, it wasn’t until Lay’s bought them in 1989 that they turned into a competition-destroying monster. They won taste test after taste test, which, combined with superior marketing led them to take 56% of the crisp market by 2013. The crisp industry is worth over £1.4 billion a year in the UK. Let there be no doubt, we are a serious crisps nation, however ludicrous we may appear in other areas. 

Crisps of the world

Crisps have since gone on to conquer the globe with their infinite variety and the enduring appeal of the fried spud. In France you’ll find Bret’s camembert crisps, alioli and rotisserie chicken flavours. In Vietnam, they munch cucumber crisps, though why, no one knows. In Spain, and in delis here, Torres offer Iberico ham crisps, and black truffle favour. The Museum of Crisps flavour index reveals everything from Caribbean coconut curry crisps to Galician octopus. 

La-dee-dah flavour

As you can see crisps are highly regional and have branched out into all sections of society. They were initially sold in pubs because salt makes people drink more beer. But Tyrell, Kettle and Pipers have all brought the humble snack into the middle class home, while Torres’ caviar crisps allow posh people to join in the fun too whilst retaining proper boundaries from us hoodlums. 

South London has its own crisps manufacturer, Tavern Snacks, who, admirably, only sell to pubs. The highly-rated Slabs, memorably described by our crisp correspondent, Ned James, as ‘Size of a baked potato and thick as a pound coin’ have gone big on chunkiness, at four times the thickness of a normal, mortal crisp. Consequently they’ll be taking their place at the soon-to-open Deserter + Camberwell Shark bar, The Shirker’s Rest, to ensure substantial snackage is available.

Ned, along with our other pro-crisper, Goose, have kept the Deserter Pubcast supplied with unusual and sometimes startling fare to inform our Crisp News segment. There seems to be no end to where crisps can go. Will they jump the shark with actual shark flavour crisps? I’d give them a go if they did. Because nothing goes with a pint of beer better than crisps. Except maybe cannabis. And it says something that I had to check the flavour index to make sure there wasn’t a shark and cannabis flavour crisp available. 

Dirty’s top three

It’s been tough whittling down all the flavours from all the years. Not because I’ve had hundreds, just that my memory has been frazzled by years of beer, drugs and crisps. And Frazzles. 

Crisp memories

You will all have your favourites, it’s a highly personalised love, but I’ll never forget these guys:

  1. Tayto’s Smoky Bacon
  2. Smith’s Bovril
  3. Piper’s Spicy Tomato

The crisp is an essential part of any pub; an unsung hero, particularly as it may be the only food to pass your lips before you wake up, throbbing and regretful. And just as cask ale is one of those rare areas where we lead the world, the crisp is its righteous and trusty sidekick. Like Robin to Batman, Piglet to Pooh, or Chewbacca to Spock.

Here’s to sidekicks. For the love of crisps, crunch on. 

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Image credits: Tayto logo: Fair use. Vending machine: Dan Taylor-Watt used under this license. Main image: Evan-Amos: Public domain.