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Flashback Friday: Potato Chip Addiction As Americana

A journey back in time to when potato-chip brands looked a little different than they do today.

Flashback Friday: Potato Chip Addiction As Americana
Photo by Richard Pan

In the December, 1982 issue of High Times, writer Bob Merlis explored the state of the potato-chip industry in Reagan-era America.


Hey, you, wipe off those greasy mitts before fingering this magazine. You’ve been eating potato chips again. No, not on your pants. Use a napkin. Okay, that’s better, but try to restrain yourself from eating any more until you’ve finished reading. No, don’t reach into that bag. Ugh! What’s the use.

Chances are you’re one of them—that’s right, you’re a potato-chip addict. You don’t crave potatoes, you’re not strung out on salt and you could probably care less about oil; but put these ingredients together, fry them all up and you’ve got a lifelong monkey on your back. But you’re not alone. Potato chips are the nation’s archetypal junk food—the cornerstone of the crunch movement and the most popular snack food anyone’s ever been able to sell the American public.

Potato chips are a big business, but an anachronistic one in that the local manufacturer—known in the trade as a chipper—is the rule rather than the exception. In fact, Lay’s is the only truly nationally distributed chip in the land. There are over 200 local chippers whose territory ranges from regions containing over half our population to mom-and-pop operations that confine their selling areas to a reasonable walking distance from the fryer. The business is so huge that over 13 percent of the annual crop of 36.5 billion pounds of potatoes ends up in chip form; you can figure out how many billions of pounds of spuds end up swimming in boiling oil for yourself—our calculator hasn’t been the same since we tried converting Death Valley temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius.

Why, then, hasn’t some savvy conglomerate come to dominate this obviously lucrative and growing industry? Aside from the aforementioned Lay’s (Frito-Lay division of Pepsico), no one has made a serious attempt for a number of reasons. The underlying prohibiting economic factor is that potato chips aren’t all that mobile. Their volume-to-weight ratio is such that they take up more room than they’re worth to carry in your average semi or freight car. They also don’t live very long. Potato chips are best when they’re fresh, and preservatives have basically become a thing of the past in the business since the gains made by the “natural style” chips of the early ’70s. Probably the most important reason the big boys are also-rans is fierce consumer loyalty to local brands.

Remember the beer business decades ago when every hamlet was proud of their minor-league baseball team, volunteer fire department and brewery? That’s the way things still are, for the most part, in the wonderful world of potato chips. Why else would a sane person wear an “I nibbled with Gibble’s” T-shirt like the kind offered on every bag of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania’s, Nibble with Gibble’s potato chips? While some auslanders might think you’re into a new perversion of which you’re quite proud, the truth is more likely that you think the cooked-in-lard flavor of NWG’s is something really special.

What about America’s second city? Yes, that toddlin’ town has more to blow its horn about than the late mayor and the Picasso at City Hall. They’ve got Jay’s, the biggest regional chipper in America’s heartland. Jay’s, which enjoys an incredible 65 percent market share in Chicagoland (take that, Pepsico!), is more than the slogan “a pip of a chip” lets on. We’re talking a way of life here. Take it from electrical engineer Dave Turner, a displaced Chicagoan, who has been known to carry an empty suitcase home for the holidays so that he might fill it with boxes of Jay’s to enjoy in Jay’s-less Southern California. “In a city where excellence has always been measured in direct proportion to grease and salt, Jay’s has always been the leader,” he expounds.

Folks did more than expound on December 8, 1941; they trashed every box of Chicago’s leading brand they could find. It came as no surprise that within one month of the destruction of the Pacific fleet, Leonard Japp, founder of Mrs. Japp’s Potato Chips, changed the name of his product to the very Occidental-sounding Jay’s. Business has been on the upswing ever since, not only in Chicago but in Milwaukee, too, where the invading Jay’s has become the number one chip in beer city, as well as in other key neighboring markets including Michigan and Indiana. Jim Jurgensen, director of purchasing for Jay’s, says the secret of his “can’t stop eating ’em” product’s success is familiarity with the flavor and the use of 100 percent corn oil in the frying process. Jay’s is a no-frills kind of chip that, according to some clever copy recently added to the packaging, was “natural long before it was natural to be ‘natural.’” We’ll munch to that.

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Speaking of frills, check out Lips Chips from—where else?—Los Angeles. A triumph of status-conscious packaging and soft-core sex appeal, Lips Chips are the most popular of the boutique chips. Packaged in canisters and bags festooned with Magritte-inspired parted lips and clouds artwork, L.C.’s include a gushy rundown on how they’re made and a treatise on the “proper etiquette for savoring Lips Chips.” Listen, we’ll ask when we forget how to eat potato chips, even the kind you find in shops that specialize in those deco-style ashtrays. On the other hand, there is a cachet of delicious decadence in serving a product whose slogan is “Wrap your lips around our chips.” Liz Rosenberg, a New York public relations executive who often has her Lips airfreighted to Manhattan from West Hollywood, confirms the theory: “The packaging is beautiful; it has the psychological effect of having you believe you’re getting a higher-quality chip.”

Just getting on the style-over-content bandwagon is Northern California’s Buffalo Chips. They’re a handmade, gourmet potato chip packaged in an ersatz Old West style, in an apparent effort to cash in on the current cowboy craze. So far we haven’t run into any Punk Chips—we guess they would be crumbled, mixed with glass and sold in trash bags held together with safety pins and barbed wire.

The hottest new chip trend these days is the Hawaiian style, or Maui chip. For the most part, these are batch-fried—only 300 pounds at a time—with the spuds wearing their jackets; they are also usually sliced a bit thicker than their mainland counterparts. Due to transport problems, few chips of true island origin find their way to any of the 48 contiguous states. Wiki Wikis come from exotic Carson, California, and many local chippers have added, or are pondering adding, a Hawaiian-style product to their expanding lines of grooved dip chips, barbecue-, onion-, and garlic-and-sour-cream-flavored chips.

Chances are none come close to the ne plus ultra standards of the true Maui chips from Kitch’n Cook’d, made by hand in Kahului. So prized are these chips, with their almost baked-potato flavor, that they are even difficult to obtain in Honolulu. Shep Gordon, manager of Blondie, Alice Cooper and Teddy Pendergrass, is a Kitch’n Cook’d connoisseur; so is Rob Reiner and a whole cult of Hollywood luminaries. Despite offers by various investors to buy out the company and increase its capacity, the likelihood of this ever happening is infinitesimal; Kitch’n Cook’d is staying where it is, so you’ll just have to be content with the locally produced surrogate varieties.

Tired of bundling up and trekking down to the local supermarket for another fix of chips? Why not consider home delivery? Charles Chips of Mountville, Pennsylvania, maintains an elaborate nationwide network of 300 franchised distributors who bring when you ring. One of the key attractions of the Charles chip is that it comes in a return-for-deposit ($1.20) can that keeps Charlie’s fresh and crisp for quite a while, even under adverse atmospheric conditions. Don Gratz, vice-president for sales at Charles’s, confides that “Florida is a great market for us because of the humidity.” He estimates that his company has put over 50 million cans in circulation since they started chipping 40 years ago. “People become addicted to the product and they can’t help themselves when they see the truck” says Charles’s route man, Martyn Glover, who is quite used to being flagged down by strung-out customers who hurl themselves at his van as he makes his rounds on the streets of Los Angeles.

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Potato chips, like potatoes, logically enough, contain starch. The starch content of a given brand of potato chips depends on how thoroughly the potatoes are washed before frying. New Era of Detroit claims to be “as starch free as a chip can be.”

That excess starch doesn’t just go down the drain. According to Perfect Potato Chips’ vice-president in charge of production, Rick Daniel, waste starch is reclaimed from their Decatur, Illinois, plant and shipped off to be used as a bonding agent in certain high-gloss papers. Could this very page be the result of a destarched potato chip? We can’t say for certain, but the possibility is a distinct one.

Sometimes your reason for loyalty to a chip can be rationalized. Take the case of Mary Anne Campagna, manager of the hit British rock group the Pretenders. Mary Anne’s mom in Buffalo, New York, regularly ships bags of locally made Dan Dee potato chips to her daughter’s Venice, California, apartment. Does Mary Anne favor Dan Dee because she’s sentimental about the chips she grew up on? She’ll only state, very matter of factly, that her Dan Dee loyalty is based on the fact that ”they’re thin and real salty and they usually have no big brown spots.” Believe her if you want to.

The way to cope with potato-chip addiction is not to go cold turkey. That would be too painful and total recovery is almost unheard of. No, the way to cope with PCA is to indulge yourself. Stuff a BonTon (York, Pa.) into your yap; scarf a State Line (Wilbraham, Mass.); try some Tri-Sums (Mount Wachuset, Mass.) and eat a Better Maid (Detroit). Feel better?

Stewart’s are the only chips currently made in Saratoga Springs, New York, the city where America’s first chips were invented…well, they were actually discovered. The history book says that a cook named “Aunt” Katie Weeks accidentally dropped a piece of chipped potato into some boiling oil in which she had intended to deep-fry crullers. Saratoga Chips, as they were then called, were instantly more popular than crullers and were sold for 10 cents per cornucopia, the bag having not yet been invented. Heirs of robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt have been claiming some involvement on the part of their forebear in the development of the Saratoga Chip. Don’t believe them; it was Aunt Katie who in July of 1853 came up with the product that’s now just about as big as sliced bread. Don’t let anybody tell you different—even if they’ve got money.

Now you’re ready for the true potato-chip junkie’s pilgrimage. Take the word of Pittsburgh attorney Bruce Wolf, who advises a trip down Route 40 from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to Hopwood, where you can’t miss Ruse’s Roost: A roadside stand that cooks potato chips to order while you wait. The warm chips “rival oral sex as an eating experience,” according to the normally staid legal eagle. Or consider a trip to Watertown, Wisconsin, where Pagel’s Bakery cooks up a few chips every day and packages them in a hand-stapled wax-paper bag. They’ve got a bit wider distribution than Ruse’s: you can buy a bag of Pagel’s not only at the bakery but at the malt shop next door as well.

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The next time you rip open a bag of Granny Goose (San Francisco), Freshies (Seattle), Go Blue (Ann Arbor), Golden Flake (Birmingham, Ala.), Grippo’s (Cincinnati), Boyd (Lynn, Mass.), Kuntz (Xenia, Ohio), Lance (Charlotte, N.C.), Mann’s (Acton, Mass.), Terrell’s (Syracuse, N.Y.), Vincent’s (Salem, Mass.), Wise (Berwick, Pa.), Vitner’s (Loves Park, Ill.), Buckeye (Columbus, Ohio), Chickadee (Whatley, Mass.), Crispy’s (Tucson) or Dentler’s (San Antonio), take a moment to think about those billions of pounds of potatoes, those billions of gallons of oil, those oceans full of salt. Then stop thinking and shove those grease-laden, starch-choked, sodium-laced chips down your throat. Face it, you’re hooked and you love it.

This article was originally adapted from a piece in Catalogue of Cool, published by Warner Books.

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