Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
A Tale of Two Chips

While I often complain about the lack of epicurean excitement in this gastronomically unsophisticated area of central Pennsylvania, I must admit we do have one culinary claim to fame. York County is The Snack Food Capital of the World! Yes, that’s right! And that is exactly how it is promoted to the few tourists who find themselves here.

We have potato chip factories, pretzel plants, cookie bakeries, candy confectioners, popcorn producers, Frito fabricators, Dorito mills, cheese curl creators, and tortilla chip manufacturers.

This is not hyperbole. In the morning when I head out the door to go to work the air is often perfumed with the sweet fragrance of cookies baking from the mile-away cookie factory. When I arrive at work I typically find that the nearby potato chip plant has laced the air with the twin aromas of the dieter’s undoing; hot oil and fried potatoes.

Being surrounded by such an embarrassment of snack food riches, I recently felt obligated to explore them. Many of these companies offer free tours so one day I made a reservation to tour the Martin Potato Chip factory.

I’ve never been a big fan of potato chips. I can take them or leave them. More often than not they are oily or too salty or their texture resembles greasy cardboard. Worse are the simulated impostors, like Pringles. Those counterfeit wafers in chip’s clothing bear no resemblance to genuine potato chips; not in flavor nor shape nor texture. Perhaps this preponderance of low quality potato chips explains the popularity of dip!

But I had high expectations for Martin’s chips. They have a very positive reputation among the local population here; a population I trust must know their chips, living as they do, in The Snack Food Capital of the World.

Martin’s signature product is their Kettle Cook’d chip, sliced a tad thicker than conventional chips, fried in soybean oil and hand stirred. Their recent claim to fame was on the Food Network, appearing in the Top 5 Presidential Snacks episode. Martin’s Kettle Cook’d chips have been the official potato chip of Air Force One through many presidential terms, favorites of Democrats and Republicans alike.

A newer offering in their product line, Kettle Gold Chips, is promoted as their premium “healthier” chip. They are cooked in sunflower oil, which gives them a golden hue, and seasoned with sea salt.

Donning hair nets, we started the tour. As factory tours go, this was a good one. Unlike some other tours which offer views of the manufacturing process from high up above and behind glass walls, we were right there on the plant floor, observing the entire process from the delivery of the potatoes all the way through to the packing of the finished product. But I’ll skip all those interesting technical details and get right to the best part of any food factory tour - the tasting.

That day they were cooking their Kettle Gold Chips. When we approached the area of the plant where the chips had been salted but not yet packaged, the tour guide scooped up a tray of fresh warm chips and passed them around. Having been teased for the past 30 minutes by the delicious scent of frying potatoes, I couldn’t wait to try them.

I grabbed a handful of the golden potato slices, each one unique in its curves and furls. They were still warm and lightly dusted with very fine sea salt. I placed one in my mouth and gently pressed it between my tongue and upper palate until it crushed into pieces. The first sensation was the warmth of the freshly fried chip, and then the light oil coated my mouth, lubricating my taste buds for the flavors to follow. Next was a subtle saltiness, then finally the rich potato flavor. I chewed the crunchy chip and swallowed. Wow! Was it really that good? I had to try another to confirm it. It was!

I’ve always believed that texture is as important in the eating experience as flavor and these chips had it all. I couldn’t stop eating them. I was won over.

A few weeks later I was thinking about those chips again, wondering if that exceptional eating experience was due more to their just-cooked freshness than anything else. Maybe all chips taste that good right out of the fryer. Or perhaps it was the uniqueness of the Kettle Gold Chips with their special processing in sunflower oil and the sea salt. I had to know, so I went to the local grocery store and purchased both styles of Martin’s Kettle Cook’d chips for an at-home taste test, uninfluenced by the fragrant aura of the factory.

With the very first bite of the grocery store’s Kettle Gold chips I was disappointed. They didn’t taste at all like the fresh warm chips I tried at the factory. I sampled the traditional style chips with the same disappointing results. Both types still had an amazing crunch, but the real potato flavor was gone, replaced by an oily taste; not oily in texture, but oily in flavor.

With my theory about freshness sadly confirmed, I next compared the two styles of chips to see if I had a preference. Although very similar, there were some subtle differences. After tasting a few Kettle Gold chips I sampled a couple of the traditional ones. I seemed to prefer the latter. Then I went back to the Gold style and decided I actually preferred those. As I sampled back and forth between the two I realized I always preferred the ones I tried last. Perhaps my palate quickly tired of one style so the next style, with its subtle differences, stimulated my taste buds again.

My oven happened to be on at the time so I tried warming the chips for a few minutes in an attempt to recapture their original warmth. The heating improved them a little bit but they were still just mere shadows of their fresh factory floor selves.

The moral of the story when it comes to potato chips is, freshest is best!

At this point I suppose I should experiment with making homemade potato chips and share the results here. That will be a future post.

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