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Dear Matthew Alice:

What came first, the tortilla chip or the potato chip?

-- kiyotei, Kiyotei's Den

I think we have to go with the tortilla chip, based more on logic than direct evidence. Corn has been around in the Americas since forever. It's been dried and ground and used for unleavened bread (proto-tortillas) since a little later than forever. It's safe to assume that it would be cooked to a soft form or a crisp form. Potatoes are probably as old as corn, but they come from a more limited area -- the highest altitudes of the Andes, settled later than the corn-rich foothills. Spuds were eaten mashed or whole. They sailed to Europe in the 1500s, bounced back to North America as cattle feed in the 1600s, then as a side dish of thick slabs called "potatoes fried in the French manner" in the 1700s. A fancy hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, created the first chips (called Saratoga chips) in 1853. Eventually potato chips became available regionally in bags. In 1933 chip salesman Herman Lay met Elmer Doolin, who'd bought out a Mexican family's business in San Antonio. The family made and sold Fritos, chips made from cornmeal masa. Frito-Lay was born. The rest is snacking history.

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