Who Really Invented Potato Skins?

Long before putting food waste on restaurant menus came into vogue, restaurants devised a way to turn potato peels into profits: Rather than throwing them away after using the innards for mashed potatoes or other preparations, the skins could be turned into an appetizer by tossing them into the deep-fryer and topping them with cheese, bacon, and/or sour cream.

Like many iconic dishes, the precise origins of this now-ubiquitous bar snack are controversial. Depending on who you ask, three different restaurants are credited with giving birth to the appetizer back in the early ‘70s: the Prime Rib Restaurant in Washington, DC; R.J. Grunts in Chicago; and mass-market land of frozen mudslides and Jack Daniels ribs, TGI Fridays.

While the former reportedly got the recipe from a home cook who learned it from James Beard, later modifying its recipe with tips from Liberace, the other two restaurants claim the dish has somewhat more humble origins. R.J. Grunts creator Richard Melman, who now presides over the Lettuce Entertain You empire of more than 100 restaurants, says adding potato skins to the menu was actually spurred by his interest in health food (a decidedly more niche category back in those days). After his brother read a story about sailors eating the skins of potatoes to stave off illness, Melman experimented with the idea, putting the dish on R.J. Grunts’ menu when it opened in 1971.

“We would serve it with sour cream and chives on the side, but people often made up their own ways of doing it,” Melman says. “You could go to the salad bar and put vegetables on it, put chili on it, put cheese on it.” (There goes that whole health food thing.) “I don’t know if we were first or tenth [to serve it]... but it was never a gigantic seller. From my recollections, maybe we sold 10 a day or so.” The remainder of the potato was used to make cottage fries, which R.J. Grunts sold far more of.

TGI Fridays, meanwhile, claims to have come up with the potato skin in 1974. “As legend has it, one of our cooks was making our mashed potatoes in the back of the house, and decided to drop the potato skin in the fryer. When it came out, he threw our proprietary fry seasoning on it, added cheddar and smoked bacon, and the rest is, as they say, history,” says Matt Durbin, the chain’s vice president of concept development.

If Fridays wasn’t the first to come up with the potato skin, the chain was certainly instrumental in bringing the dish to the masses. The simple appetizer spread quickly to casual restaurants across the country: In 1984, the Chicago Tribune reported that due to the booming popularity of potato skins, farmers were boosting production to keep up with demand. "What started as a faddish, fun-food entry in the steeplechase of fast-food marketing has now come far enough along to be called a commercial winner," the paper wrote. As Durbin explains, “It combines three things consumers love: a little bit of fried starch with ooey gooey cheddar cheese and bacon.”

While cheese-covered potato skins can hardly be considered healthy by any stretch of the imagination, diners could at least comfort themselves with the fact that the majority of a potato’s nutrients are found in the skin, including a fair bit of fiber. In 1987, however, spurred by the growing popularity of the appetizer, a Cornell grad student set off a minor panic with a research study that declared a compound found in potato skins was toxic to humans. (Those worries were largely assuaged when the researchers revealed one would have to eat 10 to 50 potatoes in one sitting to suffer any ill effects.)

More than four decades after they were added to the menu, potato skins remain one of the most popular items at TGI Fridays, a beacon of classic bar food amongst the newfangled Red Bull slushies and sriracha shrimp sushi rolls. Last year, the company served approximately three million pounds of them across all 900-plus locations in 60 countries from Argentina to Kyrgyzstan.

The company has seized numerous opportunities to capitalize on what’s arguably its most recognizable dish: In the early 2000s, it launched frozen potato skins that are now available in practically every grocery store in America, plus a line of potato chips; Potato Skins Snacks now come in nine flavors from baby back ribs to chili cheese and have become a vending machine staple. (Lays has also jumped on the potatoes-masquerading-as-other-potato-products bandwagon, and currently sells bacon cheddar potato skin-flavored Ruffles.) The chain also briefly employed a potato skin mascot that was prone to giving fans the middle finger.

But while “elevated” takes on buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks have found a place on many a trendy restaurant menu, the potato skin has seemingly struggled to find a major foothold beyond sports bars or faux-Irish neighborhood pubs. (Though RJ Grunts still serves plenty of potato products, the skins have disappeared from the menu.) Unlike, say, avocado toast or poke bowls, the humble potato skin is not particularly Instagrammable, sheathed as it is in a quickly-congealing layer of orange cheese and bacon bits.

Though potato skins originally served as a clever way to repurpose food scraps, they’ve now been turned into a commodity all their own. Several big foodservice distributors sell hollowed-out potato halves that restaurants need only thaw and top as they see fit. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fridays also now utilizes a frozen version, though it tops them in-house.)Gussied-up takes on the dish can be found at a handful of restaurants here and there, though: RPM Steak in Chicago (which is, coincidentally or not, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant) tops its version with smoked salmon and a dollop of caviar. The Fat Dog, a gastropub in North Hollywood, adorns its fancy version with crabmeat, hollandaise, and asparagus. Popular Denver brunch spot Racines serves a breakfast version that incorporates scrambled eggs in addition to the usual bacon and cheddar.

Home cooks who want to make their own potato skins will find a bounty of recipes on the internet, including several “copycat” versions that attempt to mimic TGI Fridays. Thanks to food blogs and Pinterest, countless “healthy” versions have also emerged, with varieties utilizing sweet potatoes seeming especially popular. (Yes, “paleo” potato skins are now a thing.) But whether they’re ordered at a bar or plucked from your grocer’s freezer section, junk-food purists know that the one true potato skin should be topped only with cheddar cheese, bacon, and scallions.

By Whitney Filloon

Eater

(February 2, 2017)