'I can hear you getting fatter."
The line is from Tommy Boy; David Spade says it to Chris Farley as Farley pounds away at his junk food in the passenger seat. Husband Patrick and I like to throw it out at each other when one of us gets carried away with the feed bag -- er, potato chip bag. We don't snack often, and when we do, we're usually pretty sensible. But if a bag of chips finds its way into the house, it rarely lasts the night.
Gal pals Kate and Anna confided to me that it was their soft spot as well. But, added Kate, "I like the higher-end kettle-cooked-type chips. They're thicker and heartier, so I eat less of them." "I just feel myself getting fatter when I eat them," I chimed in. But even so, said Anna, "it's hard to stop once you start. They're addictive."
If your waistline has to go, I thought, at least it can go out in style. Out I ventured in search of gourmet potato chips; chips that would bring maximum pleasure to the caloric onslaught. When I returned home, I rang up Kate and Anna, and they joined Patrick and me for a crunch-off.
One, two, three, four, five bags went by without our finding anything that was worth the tightening in our jeans. Lays Kettle-Cooked Originals ($2.89 for 9 oz. at Vons) sucked our tongues dry with a heavy salt finish. The crunch was pleasant enough, but the actual potato flavor was mediocre. We got plenty of strong, russet potato flavor from the Trader Joe's Hawaiian Style Chips ($1.69 for 7 oz.), but it came with a burnt note and a cardboard crunch. We pushed the bag aside.
Patrick enjoyed the "buttery mashed-potato flavor" on the Old-Fashioned Kettle-Cooked Cape Cod chips ($2.50 for 9 oz. at Vons), but Kate complained about the oil. "I can feel it on my lips and fingers," she said. "Too many of these, and I'd be left with a heavy, bloated feeling in my stomach." Anna liked the brittle crunch, but noted the finish. "The aftertaste is sort of clammy or fishy. It reminds me of fish and chips batter."
We scoffed at the idea of fishy potato chips, and teased Anna, saying that her taste buds were being influenced by the lighthouse on the Cape Cod bag. Then we tried Rusty's Island Chips ($2.79 for 4 oz. at Iowa Meat Farms) and got loaded to the gills on fishy flavors. And the crunch! "These are so crunchy that they're actually painful to eat," moaned Patrick. "The crunch reverberates in my eardrums!"
We sank even lower with Terra Kettles ($4.59 for 14.5 oz. at Henry's), a combination of white, russet, and sweet potato chips. A chorus of "Eeeww's" rose up from the table. "The sweet-potato chip has a blanched-yam, unpleasant sweetness," grimaced Anna. "All three kinds have a bad texture. They taste slightly stale."
Tim's Cascade-Style chips reminded us of why we sometimes plow through an entire bag in one sitting. I marveled at the way the potato flavor grew and grew as I chewed and chewed. "It's a crunch that's got some give," gushed Anna. "It's right on the edge of how much crunch a person can take."
The last two selections made us slaves to the bag. The baked-potato flavor of Poore Brothers ($2.69 for 5.5 ounces at Jonathan's Market in La Jolla) filled our noses and our tongues. Said Kate, "It doesn't break your jaw to chew it, nor does it vanish under your teeth. The crunch is mellow, and the salt is perfect."
"These Kettle-brand chips ($2.49 for 5 oz. at Iowa Meat Farms) taste like a steak fry," grinned Patrick. Anna joined in the praise: "They're cut thick, yet they're light and crispy, and they have a toasty finish without being burnt. A few more handfuls led us to declare Poore Brothers and Kettle-brand our favorite chips. (Patrick didn't mind that some people preferred Poore's; that meant more Kettle chips for him.)
"We've become so popular that we've kind of created a category," said Jim Green at Kettle-brand chips when I called. "People say, 'Kettle-this,' and 'Kettle-that,' which is frustrating, because no one in the universe besides us uses kettles to cook their chips." It's more than kettles, though. "We use a Russet Burbank potato, which is a high-sugar potato. When you cook sugars, they caramelize; that makes our chips darker. It also makes the potatoes difficult to work with; the potatoes are more susceptible to temperature changes. That's why the industry moved away from Burbanks and went to a chipping potato. The chipping potatoes are very easy to process, but we don't think they make the best-tasting potato chip."
When the Kettle-brand people start work on a batch of potatoes, "we wash them, but we don't peel them. Then we thick-slice them directly into the fryer, which is filled with a hot safflower oil. It's monounsaturated. It's a great oil, because it doesn't lend any flavor to the potato. But it's very expensive." For the occasional snackfest, it was a price I was willing to pay.
Each batch, said Greene, is hand-tended. "There's a guy sitting there stirring the chips with a special sort of garden rake so that they don't clump together. They're pretty starchy. We think of these guys like chefs because there are no buzzers or bells that go off and tell them the chips are done. It really is an art, rather than a production process. It has to do with the right amount of potatoes in the right temperature oil, and taking them out at the right time."
Once the chips are cooked, "there's a gate thing that pushes them onto a conveyer belt. Then they're inspected for over- and undercooked chips. The Russet Burbanks are unpredictable. In the same batch, there will be some that are more and less done."