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A Committed Relationship with Pennsylvania Potato Chips

by on February 02, 2016 6:00 AM
State College, PA

Let's talk. About potato chips. Because I'm feeling guilty and hoping a public confession will provide absolution.

Living in Happy Valley we are in the center of the potato chip universe. Pennsylvania is the avowed potato chip capital of the country. According to sources it leads all other states in the manufacturing of both potato chips and pretzels.

Certainly every area of the country has its homegrown potato chips. Its favorite son, or daughter, of spud-licious snacking. But none rival the plethora of options sliced, fried, and salted here in the Keystone State.

Please note the following admission pertains only to REGULAR chips. No flavors. No barbecue, sour cream and onion, dill pickle, cracked pepper, jalapeno, honey mustard, ranch, crab, lime, or bacon. All of which are fine foods or seasonings by themselves, or in the case of bacon arguably the best meat product on the planet, but I'm talking about potato chips here.

Plain potatoes, sliced and fried, preferably in lard -- but peanut, corn, or vegetable oils are acceptable (not olive oil!) -- and salted. If you want flavor, buy a dip. And remember, the Myth-Busters proved in episode 116 that double-dipping is not as bad as Seinfeld would have you think.

As I am a born-and-bred Pennsylvanian I was indoctrinated into the glory of potato chips at an early age. Some of my first expenditures with my own hard-earned cash were for potato chips.

As a young lad I had a newspaper route. After school I delivered to two streets near our house -- newspapers were printed during daylight hours back then for any printing press operators reading this column during the overnight shift -- and when I was done I would stop at the very conveniently located neighborhood corner store.

The store took up the ground floor on one side of a two-story duplex house. Having unloaded my shoulder-sack full of printed material I would take a shiny quarter -- the fruit of my back-breaking labor -- walk up the steps to the store, in the door, and buy: an 18-cent returnable bottle of RC Cola, two one-cent pieces of Bazooka bubble gum, and a five-cent bag of Middleswarth potato chips. I would walk out of the store, sit down on the porch, and enjoy dinner. One wonders why my teeth are now mostly drilled, filled, or canalled.

For years Middleswarth potato chips were the manna of life. Every day at school my packed lunch included a flip-top cellophane bag of chips. Later in the evening I would dig handfuls out of the tub and plop down on the couch in front of the TV. The raging debate was whether the chips tasted better from the clear plastic bag inside the tub, or from the opaque store-shelf bags?

Certainly I had dalliances with other chips from time to time. Charles Chips made obtaining them even easier by being delivered in a nice big can right to the front door of our house. Speaking of which, we used to get lots of food products delivered right to our front door -- eggs, milk (chocolate!), cheese, potatoes, pretzels. What a quaint acquisition system that was.

Wise potato chips were fried to a deeper, darker color than the uniform appearance of Middleswarth (should I be typing it MIDDLeSWaRTH?) and every once in a while I got a hankerin' for their richer flavor. Or decided I needed to nibble some Gibbles.

As we took family trips more than a few miles from home my universe expanded resulting in the discovery of other Pennsylvania favorites I could try once or twice, then forego for lack of distribution. Utz, Martin's, Snyder (of Berlin).

And very rarely I would commit the sin of sins and indulge in a "national-brand" chip. I might have even allowed a Pringles to touch my lips at one time. I know, blasphemy!

When my wife and I moved to Florida in 1986 we were cut off from our homegrown delicacies and had to make do with what was available. Grimaldi chocolate-covered chips staunched many a craving. I know I said no flavors, but for those, we make an exception. The occasional trip north offered an opportunity to stock up if we drove, otherwise it was eat as many as you could while you could.

Upon returning to PA in 1999 we made our home in Bucks County, where surprisingly no Middleswarth's were to be found. But Grandma Utz's Handcooked potato chips WERE available. A new king (queen) was crowned!

In the years since moving back to Happy Valley my diet has morphed. Currently I try to eliminate sugars, grains, and starches from my eating. The sugars and grains are generally easier but getting rid of starches means no potato chips. So, let's just say I have rationalized potato starch as an acceptable starch.

Being here in tater-loving-land I have gone through many phases of chip consumption. Grandma Utz's were my long-time go-to chip. Then I binged on Cape Cod chips. Trader Joe's ridged chips were addictive as well.

I fell in love with Dirty potato chips and when they first came to our area I posted an homage on Facebook (my "friends" know how rare that was at the time!). Then they contracted their production to another vendor, the chips weren't made in the same plant anymore, and the taste just seemed different. So they were knocked off my pedestal.

And here is where my public confession comes in.

Somehow, someway, somewhere, I found my hand in possession of a Lay's Kettle Cooked chip (they even take after Middleswarth and write the e's in lower-case) and ate it. Then another. And another. And I can't stop.

Now I know, there are Frito-Lay plants in Pennsylvania, so it provides jobs and benefits for Commonwealth residents, but Lay's is not of this state. It is a foreigner. It should be a great place to visit, but not live. And yet I find myself grabbing bags off the shelf.

So, with apologies to Hector Barbossa... I come to you, Happy Vallians, as but a servant, humble and contrite. My name is John Hook and I am addicted to Lay's Kettle Cooked chips. I have fulfilled my purpose here and now ask your favor. Spare meself, me house, and me family... and unleash your fury upon that which dares pretend itself my master. If you see me in the store with a bag, take it from me!

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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