Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Potato Chip Gyp

The United States of America is often referred to as “the land of opportunity.” This country may indeed be a rich land of opportunity for many reasons, but certainly not when it comes to potato chips. For some reason, the U.S. is the blandest producer of potato chip flavors in the world. England, Canada, India… their chips swell with flavorful pride. Here? All we’ve really got to call our own is BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion, perhaps some Cheddar, and endless riffs on the same. Why is it that our diverse melting pot palate is presumed to be one-dimensional when it comes to potato chips?

My guess is it's due to an ironic and reversed cultural phenomenon. The artisinal beer movement here has expanded in endless tributaries for years in a majority of states, and while top baseline brands Budweiser and Miller are somewhat holding their own, Michelob may soon vanish. This because today our evolving palates demand more than just generic, low-level beer, and why only the ultimate brands of that simple kind can survive in our currently thriving artisinal beer market.

Alternatively, tradition is a way of life in England, and their beer doesn't waver far off the beaten path. Per some research I did on the British beer market last year in grad school, experimental line extensions don't have high success rates there because people are happy with the tried and true brands and styles (aka Guinness, Carlsberg, and more Guinness). Yet go to any food-selling shop in London and you'll see much evidence of the British crisps flavor movement (crisps = what they call chips). One innovator is the Walkers company, maker of the fun-flavored (imho) Walkers Sensations. They feature flavor combos redolent of main course dinners: Roast Chicken & Thyme literally took me to a seat at Friday night dinner. If you close your eyes, the taste is certainly not far off.

Other Walkers Sensations flavors I thrilled at discovering include Roast Beef & Horseradish, Lamb & Mint, and I never did get my hands on this ultimate combo: the limited edition Pork Loin & Mustard. Can you imagine? Today the line has expanded to flavored peanuts and other crunchy bits to accommodate more global tastes, like Oriental crackers that taste like Japanese Beef Teriyaki, or poppadoms that taste like Lime and Coriander Chutney. These are exciting snacks! Why do I have to travel to another country to get them?

At least Canada is closer to the U.S. than England. Recently a friend visited from Toronto with a bag of his favorite Ruffles with the flavor “All Dressed." They were extremely tasty, and who knows why—I can't make out if I tasted any of the specific ingredients shown on the label—but they certainly were terrific.

A little searching online to the Frito-Lay Canada site revealed a ton of unique flavors made in that country, including Roast Chicken (!) and one little beauty only sold in Atlantic Canada: the Fries & Gravy chips. Why in heavens name are Fries & Gravy chips only sold in Atlantic Canada when they would be a runaway hit in New Jersey’s disco fries diner culture? And why doesn’t Frito-Lay headquarters in Texas think about distributing some of that flavor wealth in this country? Or is BBQ the biggest chip flavor here simply because Frito-Lay headquarters is located in "BBQ country" Texas?

That's a lot of questions, and here's one more: Why do big-brand U.S. chip makers looking for a brand extension only make minor adjustments or “extreme” versions of the flavors in their arsenal? Speaking of which, I tried an extreme Doritos Cool Ranch chip once and felt my taste buds recoil into horrified submission. It's just too much. Flavors should be great because they taste good, not because they're louder.

One U.S. chip producer, Kettle Chips, did try to kick up the usual chip flavors with these innovative twists: Loaded Baked Potato, New York Cheddar, and the most press-worthy, Spicy Thai. They also expanded their line to include some limited batch flavors like Cheddar Beer and Red Chili. I tried some of their flavors and liked them, although if you prefer a thinner chip in the Ruffles or Lays style and not a thicker one, like me you may find Kettle Chips a bit too heavy.
I’ve been frustrated with U.S. chip flavors for years now, ever since my first trip to London in the '90s when the delightful Prawn Cocktail mainstay chip enlightened my world. All these years later, the situation is suddenly getting more attention. Earlier this month my favorite food magazine, Saveur, published with their annual ode to their top 100 food and beverage offerings in the world ("The Saveur 100"). They dedicated five out of 100 precious slots to global potato chip flavors! See them here and be wowed, then be grateful if you live close to an Indian market like I do to track down a bag of Lay’s Magic Masala.

Even though this is the land of opportunity, it seems too many things we eat are homogenized to fit the tastes of the masses. Of course that makes sense—economies of scale being what they are—but I'll bet if Lays started rolling out their Canadian flavors here, or Walkers had a co-brand agreement with Ruffles, the masses would embrace such potato chip flavor freedom and it would result a win-win for all.

Until we eat again,

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