EVERY FEW WEEKS, I nimbly navigate my way through the myriad questions involved when ordering a sandwich at Subway.
Twelve inch or six inch? Nine grain wheat, nine grain honey oat, Italian, Italian herbs and cheese, or flatbread? Heated? Cheese? What kind?
Those are relatively easy, but then you have to race through the ingredient gauntlet…cucumbers, shredded lettuce, spinach, red onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, olives, pickles?
And, finally, the home stretch—the condiments. Salt, pepper, oregano, chipotle southwest, light or regular mayo, sriracha mayo, mustard, ranch, oil, vinegar?
According to Subway, that’s a decision tree resulting in 37 million possible sandwich variations.
On my last visit to the bustling Subway on Georgia Regents University’s Health Sciences Campus, I breezed through the line like a champ. But when my sandwich artist successfully upsold me a bag of potato chips, I was stopped dead in my tracks.
Life is replete with difficult decisions: choosing a college major, deciding on a career, settling on a place to live, rent or buy, gas or electric, kids or no kids, tattoos or no tattoos, marriages and divorces, nips and tucks. Selecting a potato chip shouldn’t be one of them.
But there I stood, absolutely flummoxed by this decision, while a line of ravenous scrubs-wearing medical professionals swelled behind me. I could feel the urgency of the crowd while my inner voice screamed, “You just selected one sandwich out of 37 million options. Pick a chip!”
Dressing the humble potato with artificial chicken and waffles favoring is unnecessary ornamentation, akin to putting lipstick on the “Mona Lisa…”
My eyes darted from bag to bag—from Kettle Cooked Greektown Gyro to Wavy West Coast Truffle Fries to New York Reuben and finally to Southern Biscuits and Gravy, the four new flavors vying for supremacy in the latest round of Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest and the only four options available on that day in that Subway. Impatient arms reached around me and snatched chips off the rack, but still I was frozen in place. I was desirous of a potato chip that tasted like a potato—not like sausage gravy or corned beef and sauerkraut.
After another jostling by another white-coated diner, I made my decision, which was not to make a decision at all. I strode out of Subway chipless but for the one on my shoulder, silently cursing Lay’s for pandering to the American public’s insatiable desire for the burlesque by bastardizing perfectly good potatoes.
Perhaps you recall the last iteration of the Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” competition? I do because, as you may have discerned, I take potatoes very seriously. Blame it on my Teutonic heritage. In Germany, Kartoffel is king.
The finalists were bacon mac and cheese, mango salsa, wasabi ginger and a culinary abomination if ever there was one—cappuccino. And what about the flavors that didn’t make it through to the finals—Haggis and watermelon (that’s one flavor), glazed doughnuts and Benedict Cumberbatch. Ugh.
Chad Scott, the mastermind behind the cappuccino chip, was not the victor. Shocking, I know. That honor went to the contestant who submitted the wasabi ginger idea. Mr. Scott received a $50,000 consolation prize and all the vitriol the Internet could muster over his misguided flavor, which gives me hope for the marketability of a cookbook Marian and I have pondered for years: Recipes Not To Make.
But back to the beginning. The root of the chip, if you will. According to potato lore, in 1853 a passive aggressive cook at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., sent out a plate of razor thin potatoes fried to a crisp and heavily salted to a customer who kept complaining that his fried potatoes were too thick. The customer loved them and Saratoga chips, what we know today as potato chips, were born. For nearly a 100 years, we were satisfied with the unadorned potato chip. Lay’s barbecue flavored chips appeared in 1958, the only flavor available in the United States other than the conventional salted chip until the introduction of Sour Cream and Onion in the late 1970s.
Lest I leave you with the impression that I’m averse to progress, I am not. I have energetically embraced innovation in the world of food and cocktails. In these very pages I wrote about my adventures with molecular gastronomy—how I employed the frozen reverse spherification process to create floating orbs of beer and my efforts (successful, it should be noted) to concoct arugula noodles by combining liquefied arugula with agar agar as a jellifying agent.
I am also not averse to diversification or, as they say in the marketing business, product line extension. A few years ago, I traveled to Japan to hike the Nakasendo Trail. One of my favorite activities during that trip was hunting for exotic flavors of Kit Kat bars in the post towns we visited, a quest that surely would have been frowned upon by the stern feudal lords and samurai who walked that path centuries ago. I scored strawberry, blueberry cheesecake, pear, edamame soybean, cherry blossom, azuki bean and hot Japanese chili among others. I brought them home and displayed them with the pride of a kitten upon catching its first mouse.
No, my problem definitely is not with progress. My problem is with pimping the potato. A potato is perfection, an edible diamond mined from the dirt, first in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes and now all over the globe, the fifth most important crop in the world behind wheat, corn, rice and sugar cane.
Most of us have made the acquaintance of the Yukon Gold, the Idaho and the Russet, but did you know that the International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 different varieties? Blue Congo, Austrian Crescent, Goldrush, Avalanche, Belle de Fontenay, Kennebec, Kirr’s Pink, Vivaldi, Lady Balfour, Desiree—names that fall off the tongue like remembrances of former lovers. Tuber poetry.
Dressing the humble potato with artificial chicken and waffles flavoring is unnecessary ornamentation, akin to putting lipstick on the “Mona Lisa” or adding a pearl necklace to Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What’s wrong with a potato that tastes like a potato? Why does a potato have to taste like bratwurst or cinnamon buns or Cajun squirrel? (Check behind me if you don’t believe me.)
Lay’s isn’t the only culprit. All the cool kids are doing it. Nabisco has taken the Oreo to new heights (or lows, depending on your philosophical bent) with their line of novelty flavors—key lime pie and candy corn among them. Brands like Pinnacle and Three Olives boast vodka in a bewildering array of varieties. But to Fruit Loops, Sweet Tarts and S’mores flavored vodka, I say nyet. And if the turducken wasn’t a sign that the apocalypse is upon us, the piecaken—a whole pie baked into a whole cake—surely is.
Thoreau reminds us: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
In life and in potato chips.
This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.