Potato chips are America’s number one snack. But do you remember when there was just a quiet section of Aisle 6 that was dedicated to the starchy pleasure? Now there’s an entire left or right side of an aisle, if not more, shelving a bounty of chips. Even the 7-Elevens sell Loaded Baked Potatoes and Mozzarella Sticks (in chip form, via TGI Fridays). But what did we munch on before Kettle Brand and Pop Chips? We ate Frito-Lay, the umbrella company that basically owns every other recognizable chip product (even Miss Vickie’s). Today, previously unheard of potato-chipping techniques are on display, promoted on color-popped bags and contorted into odd shapes, introducing potatoes that have been curled and twisted into new identities. What started the mass production of both the classy and cheesy, overly crunchy and wildly flavored chips? People were a part of the ‘eating local’ movement before they even realized it. In the past, folks only ate potato chips that were locally available, thus developing brand loyalty. Regional flavors and texture preferences were reflected in the flavor and style of each bag. We also know for sure that the gluten-free club is exponentially acquiring new members; the potato is a precious necessity for this wheat-challenged group.
Potato chip making began in the mid-19th century as small operations in towns with access to potatoes, oil and a kettle for frying. Today there are “chipping potatoes” harvested specifically for potato chip making. Industry technology has developed enough so that production plants are able to produce a more uniform chip. Innovations in packaging have also ensured wider distribution of the chips, meaning that localized chip styles are slowly crossing borders and spanning the states. Why should only New Orleans get to experience Utz Crab Chips?
While jet-setting chips are becoming more prevalent, the brands still have to test their prospective markets. Today, Frito-Lay offers a collage of chip styles that remain regional: Wavy Au Gratin in the Midwest, Dill Pickle in North Dakota, and Garden Tomato & Basil in the East. The mother brand also sells flavors like roast chicken to the UK and caviar to Russians. The newest members of the chip family, Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles, are available everywhere, thankfully. Only time will tell if we’ll ever get to see the entire chip dynasty’s full flavor spectrum.