Battle of the Cheap Potato Chips: Wise vs. Lay's
No potato product is more characteristically American than potato chips. They were invented in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853, and instantly became a hit, especially among folks who valued crispness as a cooked-potato trait over other qualities. (You know who you are--those who scavenge among a batch of fries or hash browns for the small, dark, crunchy bits.)
These potato chips were considered to be perfect unto themselves for nearly 140 years, at which point the simple chip made only from thin-sliced potatoes became obsolete, as dozens upon dozens of variations were spun off by such competing companies as Utz, Frito-Lay, Wise, and Herr's. Now we have kettle chips, "handcooked" chips, and chips composed from mashed potatoes, in flavors that sometimes sound absurd, including Hawaiian sweet onion, salt-and-vinegar, guacamole, sour-cream-and-chive, jalapeno, and Carolina barbecue. It seems like no one wants potato chips to actually taste like potatoes anymore.
Of course, the ulterior motive of the creators of these chips involves charging more for them, and, as a byproduct, ramping up the calories and chemical content. When I visited a dozen delis in preparation of this piece, I discovered that the 50-cent bag of chips--staple of zillions of work and school lunches--is almost a thing of the past. In fact, the plain unadorned chip has become as dim a memory as 19th-century America.
But this "heirloom chip," as we might call it, still persists, though delegated to the lowliest level of the rack. Why should anyone sell it, when the brash flavors of today command 99 cents per bag for scarcely more chips? Lay's and Wise were the only brands I could find still willing to sell a meager 50-cent bag of plain chips, so I decided to pit them against each other as a Battle of the Dishes, which is a regular feature of Fork in the Road.