The restaurant opened in 1853, and according to legend, in August of that year a fussy customer (some say it was railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) repeatedly sent his plate of “Moon’s Fried Potatoes” back to the kitchen, complaining they were sliced too thick. In frustration, chef George Crum sliced up some potatoes razor-thin, fried them until crisp and seasoned them with extra salt. Other versions of the story credit Crum’s sister Katie Wicks as the inventor, still others say it was the restaurant’s owner Cary Moon or his wife. In any case, the style took hold, and by the 1870s, recipes for crispy Saratoga potatoes (sometimes called Saratoga chips) appeared frequently in American cookbooks.
It is rather odd then that James Parkinson's 1851 Thousand Dollar Dinner menu includes Saratoga potatoes—two years before Crum supposedly “invented” them. But it appears that fried potatoes were likely a specialty in the Saratoga Springs area prior to the 1853 Crum story. An entertaining 1849 New York Herald article discussing the “Comforts at Lake Saratoga” raves about the fried potatoes served at Loomis’s Lake House, a resort predating Moon’s. Just like Parkinson’s pairing, these dinners also featured game birds such as woodcock and partridge, a detail affirmed by historian Dave Mitchell, who pointed out that all the lake houses in Saratoga Springs were famous for their fish and game dinners.
So it seems highly probable that the Saratoga potatoes served by Parkinson were indeed the fried variety and had been known by that name even before 1853. Perhaps Parkinson had vacationed in the Saratoga Springs area and brought the recipe name and preparation home to Philadelphia, or maybe the dish had been making the culinary rounds earlier than previously believed.
In any case, I thought this would be a fun dish to duplicate. After all, who doesn't like potato chips? I found a good recipe in Mary F. Henderson's 1876 cookbook, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving. As per Mrs. Henderson:
It requires a little plane, or potato or cabbage cutter, to cut these potatoes. Two or three fine, large potatoes (ripe new ones are preferable) are selected and pared. They are cut, by rubbing them over the plane, into slices as thin or thinner than a wafer. These are placed for a few moments in ice, or very cold water, to become chilled. Boiling lard is now tested, to see if it is of the proper temperature. The slices must color quickly; but the fat must not be so hot as to give them a dark color.
Place a salt - box on the hearth; also a dish to receive the cooked potatoes at the side; a tin plate and perforated ladle should be at hand also. Now throw, separately, five or six slices of the cold potato into the hot lard; keep them separated by means of the ladle until they are of a delicate yellow color; skim them out into the tin plate; sprinkle over some salt, and push them on the dish. Now pour back any grease that is on the tin plate into the kettle, and fry five or six slices at a time until enough are cooked. Two potatoes fried will make a large dishful.
It is a convenient dish for a company dinner, as it may be made early in the day; and by being kept in a dry, warm place (for instance, a kitchen-closet), the potato-slices will be crisp and nice five or six hours afterward. They are eaten cold, and are a pretty garnish around game, or, in fact, any other kind of meat.
The "plane" Mrs. Henderson is referring to is what we now call a mandolin, and as anyone who has tried to slice vegetables into razor-thin pieces knows, it is an essential tool for this process. In the nineteenth century it was often called a "Saratoga Potato-cutter," even though it was also used for cutting other vegetables such as cabbage, onions or cucumbers. As described by Mrs. Henderson, "the screws at the sides adjust a sharp knife, so that, by rubbing the potato over the plane, it may be cut as fine or as coarse as may be desired. The cost for this kitchen marvel was 50 cents in 1876.
I pretty much followed Mrs. Henderson's recipe verbatim, slicing the potatoes paper-thin and placing them in ice water. I had some lard heating in my cast iron skillet and fried the slices in it, being careful not to overcrowd them (and also not to get splattered with the hot lard which had liquified during the heating process). Once the slices were nicely browned, I transferred them to baking sheets lined with paper towels to absorb the oil and liberally coated them with salt. That's it! Very easy and everyone devoured them. Of course by cooking in lard this isn't the healthiest recipe by a long-shot, but no harm in making these as an occasional treat.