Thursday, October 26, 2006

Paean to the Potato Chip

I love them all. The thin ones, rendered translucent by their hot oil bath are probably my favorites. I’ve been known to search the bag to find those. Probably if I stopped after that, I’d be fine since there are only a handful of the perfect, crisp, translucent ones in each bag, but once those special chips are downed and gone, I console myself by eating the less perfect, slightly thicker ones. Then I move on to the ones with major imperfections, breaking off and throwing away any blackened bits or odd green-tinged spots, and, finally, even the ones that have been ground, on their journey from factory to home, into little chip crumbs, until, at last, only the inside of the bag, shiny with grease and rough with salt, remains.

Yes, that is the problem; I love them all. When Frito-Lay’s commercials used to trumpet “Bet you can’t eat just one,” it was as if they were announcing my guilty secret to the whole world. Just one? I couldn’t even eat just 25 or just 50. Chip addiction is a terrible thing.

Mind you, chips have been mostly off my food radar for years, decades. There’s the fat and the salt, and even worse, there are the carbohydrates. Eating a bag of potato chips is, chemically speaking, just like eating a bag of sugar. Pure, simple carbohydrate. Any possible food value the lowly potato might have, and it does have a little, although even in its natural state it is a bit on the starchy side, has been stripped away in the production of the potato chip. No skin (fiber) to slow the absorption of that glorious carbohydrate. No vitamins and minerals after the high-temperature oil immersion. Just starch, fat, and salt. Three of the most highly desired food groups.

I wish I could say that it was only potato chips that I crave, but it wouldn’t be true. I have a fierce Frito Jones, created in childhood. A family Thanksgiving tradition, as we waited for the big meal to be ready, was snacking on clam dip (homemade only, please, and wonderful) and Fritos while watching football. Never POTATO CHIPS. I loved the Fritos with the dip, but when the bag of chips outlasted the dip, I was happy to have them naked too. Fritos, with their delicious corn toastiness, are fantastic, alone or in partnership. A software company I once worked at in the 80s imported a bunch of programmers from Texas. With them, they brought one of life’s perfect food combinations. You know what I’m talking about: a dish where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts to the point that a manna of taste ensues in each bite. This food consisted of two things I had never tasted separately, much less together, in my Northern eating experience, RoTel and Velveeta. By now, I am sure you have had many versions of this exquisite glop. At the time, I had never heard of RoTel, which is now found on almost any grocery store shelf in America, and which I find has many uses in cooking, but back then it was as alien as their okra pickles. RoTel, in case you have been living on another planet the last 15 years or so, is canned diced tomatoes with green chiles. It has just a hint of heat. To make the dip, you put the can of RoTel in a crock pot (or fondue pot or on the stovetop, but you need some way to keep it warm [read: uncongealed]) and add a two-pound block of Velveeta cut into chunks. The tomatoes and chiles heat, the Veleveeta melts, you stir it all together and the most delicious slice of artery-clogging, TexMex heaven is created, which when scooped with a Frito, results in a perfect food.

Since clam dip with Fritos was the only dip experience I had as a child, I was quite surprised to emerge into the world and learn that most people ate their dip with potato chips. It seems quite alien to me, even now, and sort of criminal to render a perfect potato chip wet and soggy with dip. But there are other good choices for dip besides Fritos, and they have become favorites in my chip pantheon too.

Once again, we must look south for this new staple of American cuisine, the tortilla chip. These versatile little blank slates of starch take well to many treatments. They are good alone with salsa, which has surpassed catsup as the largest-selling condiment in the US, they are great as the bed for nachos or the vehicle for conveying another near-perfect food, Mexican seven-layer dip, to the mouth. Like their American cousin, the Frito, they have more body than a potato chip, the better to stand up to dipping.

For the most part, I am a bit of a food purist. In childhood, I believed that dinnerware design peaked in the 50s with those melamine plates with dividers that mimicked TV dinner trays. That way, foods didn’t run together and “contaminate” each other. I was appalled by one of my uncles, who possibly because he had lost his ability to taste or possibly just because, would mix all of his food, no matter what it was, into one large puddle on his plate (cutting his meat up as necessary first) and eat it. He explained that it all went the same place so why not, an argument that did nothing to change my scandalized mind.

I mention this by way of explanation when I tell you that, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, I do not care for flavored chips. Your nacho cheese tortilla chip, or your sour cream potato chip, these strike me as abominations. Since coming to Florida though, I have found a new exception. I don’t know if you can buy these in stores even, but in some vending machines there are tortilla chips with avocado and lime that are really good. Another classic exception, for me, is the barbecue potato chip. It is like a whole separate thing from the regular potato chip. You have the addition of sugar, a fourth most highly prized food group, to your salt, starch, and fat.

There is one other style of chip that does nothing for me and that is the formed (Ruffles-style) or extruded (a la Pringles) chip. Gross. If one wants to eat a completely unredeemable fake food, there is really no comparison to Cheetos. I ask you, from where else can you obtain that lovely orange glow?

Mostly, I just taste the memories, the ghosts of chips past. Then, this week, the store that offers three free items if you purchase $25 or more was giving away a free 5 oz. bag of chips. Cogitating feverishly, my child-of-Depression-era-children brain came up with a reason not to leave the free chips on the table. My husband, whose cholesterol count indicates he does not need them either, could take them in his lunch. Yeah, right. I am sure it comes as no surprise that the chips did not live out the evening.

So, now, I am back to memories of chips and, most of the time, glad about that.

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