Actually, Salt Is the Only Flavor Potato Chips Need
Why can’t we just be happy with what we have, especially when what we have is so damn good?
Getty Images/Victor Cardoner
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The potato chip is in peril, and it’s all your fault. You asked for prawn cocktail-flavored chips, for turkey stuffing, for mushroom soup. You asked for kettle-cooked, oven-baked, crinkle-cut. You asked for kale chips. Kale chips? Kale. Chips.
You sullied perfection, and now the only thing to do is to go back to the beginning.
The potato chip, it is said, emerged fully formed from the hallowed halls of Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs in the summer of 1853, when a disgruntled chef named George Crum crisped up some potato shavings in response to a complaint from none other Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt himself. Upon devouring the fried potato wafers, and much to the chef’s surprise, Vanderbilt heartily congratulated Crum on his feat. And thus, the potato chip was born. Or so the legend goes.
It didn’t happen like that, of course. There is evidence of a forgotten female cook (surprise!) in Saratoga, remembered as simply “Eliza, the cook,” experimenting with potato frying as early as 1849. There’s also a recipe in the 1817 edition of the whimsically-titled A Cook’s Oracle that advises home cooks to "peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping."
But regardless of how they entered our collective diets, by the early 20th century, potato chips were being mass manufactured in America and the UK. And by 2018, the average American was eating over six pounds of potato chips each year.
Not that there's anything wrong with this! In fact, let me say categorically: I believe that there is nothing wrong with eating over six pounds of potato chips annually (no matter what the New York Times says about greasy potato-product intake). My dispute is not with the ubiquity of the potato chip; rather, it is with their perversion.
The first flavored potato chips—Cheese & Onion and Salt & Vinegar—were developed in Ireland in the 1950s. Later that decade, in 1954, Lay’s began selling their barbecue-flavored potato chips. Now, worldwide, flavors range from dill pickle to scallop with butter to borscht. Then there's the jaw-cracking, mouth-slicing kettle chips that are marketed as a more “authentic” potato chip experience; the "healthy” oven-baked potato chips that gained popularity in the ‘90s, along with bagel and taro chips; and the popular Popchip, made by subjecting potato starches to high pressure to create the distinctive (and culinarily vapid) puff.
Flavoring potato chips is a fascinating mix of sorcery and science: What manufacturers are trying to capture in a chip is not the exact taste of chicken and waffles, but rather the sensory memory of the dish, to make tangible the intangible idea of a plate of fresh, hot chicken and waffles. It’s a sort of synesthetic experiment, trying to compress the entire experience of a dish, its complexities and subtleties, into a powdered dust.
How do they do this? According to Lay’s, an “executive chef” prepares the dish to perfection, then gives it to food scientists to distill into a combination of spices and additives—which include dextrose, molasses, and various yeasts.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made about the magic of these alchemical processes, but I don’t want to make that argument. Because in gussying up a thing born of pure practical genius, we’ve obscured the true purpose of the potato chip—which is to be the blandest, streamlined-est, most transparent way to deliver unadulterated salt and fat into your mouth. Two essential elements, unmasked; two primary components of any good meal in their uncorrupted form.
A potato chip isn’t a meal, and it shouldn’t taste like one. It shouldn’t taste like a distilled barbecue spread, or a tightly-wound bowl of pad thai. It shouldn’t really taste like much of anything. It should give your tastebuds a firm shake, awaken your mouth with its salinity, leave your fingers slick and lickable. Potato chips are a palate cleanser, a preview. They are an aperitif. And they are best served, unadorned, alongside your drink of choice: Mine, a glass of nearly unbearably crisp rosé, the jam-smack of red berry and sunshine tempered by the mellow warmth of the oil and salt.
Why are we so hell-bent on embellishment? What is this instinct to stuff and fluff, to gild the lily? Why can’t we just be happy with what we have, especially when what we have is so damn good? This is true of so many foods including $0.99, corner-store potato chips. There’s a brewery in Sweden selling the “world’s most exclusive” potato chips, flavored with matsutake mushrooms and truffle seaweed, for $56. They come five to a box, and according to the press images, you are meant to eat them with tweezers. This, apparently, is the chip of the future, and I hate it. So should you.
A few nights ago, for research, I went to Rebel Rebel, a new wine bar in Somerville, Massachusetts. The bar is tiny, with pink dusklight spilling onto the snowy patio where a few people huddled under shared blankets, clutching their glasses. I met a friend and sipped a glass of punchy Lamoresca slowly. It got late and I got hungry; I was close to packing it in. And then, from the bar, emerged a small wooden bowl of plain, cheap potato chips. It was like a wafer on my tongue, dissolving into a slick of salt, making the wine sing. I didn't miss the hypothetical flavors because the plain potato chip is the best at what it does. It's already perfect.