Who doesn’t love salt? The history of the world is littered with armies formed and empires built in the pursuit of that sacred mineral. Even our language has been infiltrated with its presence. Who wouldn’t like to be described as “salt of the earth”? Who wouldn’t enjoy a lazy afternoon listening to tall tales from an “old salt”?
Those salty snacks, especially in the form of the noble potato chip, helped me through the ordeal of adolescence. After all, eating an entire bag of chips, preferably in solitude, can heal the deepest depression. We all know that.
Growing up in the South, we weren’t confused with an overabundance of options. These days there are all kinds of flavored chips that leave suspicious red and orange dye on one’s fingers and lips. Potato chips should only involve three ingredients: potatoes, oil, and salt. Any deviation from this recipe is doomed to lead one down a dark and bitter path. Just give me the basic potato chip or nothing at all. After all, when that which is created from a foundation of basic goodness is achieved, why fool around trying to improve it? “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” I think Ringo Starr said that.
My dad tried to maintain a domestic moratorium on potato chips. I knew that when Mom dragged in those grocery bags from the Big Apple Supermarket, I needed not waste my time searching for a nice bag of chips. They were simply not there, nor would they ever be.
However, we did have our revenge once. In the 1960s, the Charles Chips company appeared in our neighborhood, offering a service that delivered five-gallon tins of gourmet potato chips directly to your door on a subscription basis. For years we watched with jealous eyes as that brown truck delivered salty treasure to our neighbors up and down the street. One summer, when Dad was away on his annual Army Reserve training, we finally wore Mom down. Under unrelenting pressure, she finally wilted and called to schedule a weekly delivery of this most prized commodity. That Friday, I rushed home from school and waited in the yard until the chariot of delight rounded the corner and turned into our driveway.
To this day, I remember everything exactly as it happened: the cloudless sky, a slight breeze, a dog barking down the street. My hands trembled as I took the large canister and hugged it tightly against my chest. I rushed inside to join my brother, who awaited me on the couch. We ate the entire five gallons of chips during our viewing of Tennessee Tuxedo and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Our eyes glazed over, and open sores appeared on our blistered and puckered lips. It did not matter. We had been to Nirvana, and it was worth the price.
One day, when I was in third grade, an announcement came that we would be going on a class field trip the next day. Now, a field trip was always a welcome break in our scholarly doldrums, but when the destination was announced, absolute pandemonium broke out. Yes, it was true: we were going to the Holy of Holies. We had heard tales of wonder about the magical factory that made Lay’s potato chips but had no idea that it truly existed. We assumed it was a place of myth, like Atlantis.
The next day, still in a state of disbelief, we boarded the yellow school bus and were soon delivered to the mighty gates of that industrial temple that produced the snacks we had loved our entire young lives. As is true of many emotional memories, much of it is lost in a blur. Through the haze of time, I have preserved one clear and brief memory. My classmates, walking in single file under the watchful eye of our teacher, entered the inner sanctum. We beheld a giant room where mountains of sliced and raw potatoes were being gently introduced into bubbling lakes of oil. I thought I was in the center of the earth.
The air was salty. Waves of heat arose, crashed against the walls, and subsided. With our backs pressed against the white tile walls, we speechlessly watched the constant activity. Conveyor belts, drying racks, and mechanical devices of all manner clanged, whirled, and moved as if they had a mind of their own. I peered over the guardrail and looked straight down into a turbulent vat of oil and potatoes. It reminded me of those National Geographic documentaries where some crazed scientist climbs down into a volcano to see how close they could get to the lava lake before their clothes burst into flames. I had a momentary desire to jump over the rail and into the frying pool of potatoes. Yes, I wanted to merge and become one with the chips.
Terry Moser, my good buddy, saw the look in my eye and grabbed my shirttail. Terry, wherever you are, I owe you big time. After what seemed like an eternity, we were guided out of that hellish heaven and stumbled to the exit. At this point, we received an unexpected gift as a remembrance of our time in the Vatican of snacks. Each one of us was given a clear plastic bag stuffed with every edible product produced in the factory. Childhood didn’t get any better than this. We rode back to the school in silence, each lost in their own thoughts of the grandeur we had just experienced.
Now, permit me a final word of consumer warning. There have been many attempts over the decades to improve on the glory of the simple potato chip. Flavored chips, waffle chips, chips of every possible texture and spice. There is even a most vile by-product called Pringles that is made from an extruded substance. Judgment will surely come to those who tinker with the elemental forces of nature. I mean no disrespect to the fans of Doritos and Fritos and all the other imitators, but in the name of all that is holy, this has simply gone too far. If I were king of the world, these things would be banished from the realm. The potato chip requires no embellishment. Let it be said for once and for all: “The plain chip goes with everything.”
You can pick up Jim’s latest book, The Magnolia Chronicles, here.