Perhaps I give potato chip scientists too much credit. I think I have a tendency to imagine them a league of poor man’s Ferran Adrìas, well-thumbed copies of Philip K. Dick novels in the pockets of their lab coats, eager to probe the limits of representation, memory and experience, at the interface of sensation and technology. For chips have become a bit of a technology of the fantastic. For all that vat meat and genetic engineering have a “Holy shit it’s the fuckin’ future” quality about them, potato chips evoke more of the actual imaginary of science fiction past, by which I mean space-food-pills. One could argue that diet shakes and nutritional supplements are likelier candidates for the realization of this vision, but I think that the space-food-pill is about more than sustenance and nutrition abstracted from the material particularities of food (although Matt Novak provides a nice potted overview of the relationship between space-food-pills, women’s labour, scarcity and techno-utopianism). The space-food-pill may also be thought of as a fantasy of harnessing the imaginary of food, or at least one which poses the question “Is there something that eludes us still in the experience and the enjoyment of food even when we have produced a technology that not only mimics the taste, but generates the impression of having eaten the thing?” (Cronenberg answers Yes, the Poetry of the Steak, or, that which allows us to be made crazy by the flesh)
Of course chips fall well short of this. They are a comparatively primitive technology, hewing all to one side of the sensual / sustenance divide, and even then to flavour over feel; but after all, ee’s just a wee chip. But over the past decade we have witnessed something that could be called by way of a shorthand ‘The Science Fiction Turn in Chips’. For a long time, North American chips had been dominated by condiment-flavours, many that already had a place relative to potatoes in their various preparations (e.g. ketchup, salt & vinegar, sour cream & onion). There are of course exceptions, and many would remember the brief explosions of precocious creativity that brought us pizza, hot dog, roast turkey & stuffing chips, but for the most part the roster remained somewhat stable, not to say conservative. In recent years, however, the market has been deluged with new flavours, such that it seems an impracticable as well as worthless undertaking to stay abreast of them, let alone offer any critical commentary. What is noteworthy about this phenomenon is that on the whole there has been a move toward the representation of more complex foods, entire meals even, and this is, I would argue, what brings the chip more in line with the spirit of the space-food-pill. Although not actually a potato chip, the Doritos All-Nighter Cheeseburger was the first chip that for me imparted a sense of the uncanny, and while this effect has been by no means uniformly achieved in the waves of subsequent experiments, the anticipation of its possibility has at least been routinized. The idea that a chip could be eerily reminiscent of the thing that it supposes to imitate, even when that thing is a salad or a sandwich of some complexity, or fuckin’ moose-meat, has been elevated from the utterly implausible to the merely improbable in a strikingly short time.
And so I like to think of those flavour scientists toiling away, impelled as much by their desire to advance the practice of their art as by the caprices of cool-hunting marketing executives; perhaps a rung or two lower on the ladder than the Wendell Stanleys a Frank MacFarlane Burnets who pursued the question of whether or not viruses were alive to the logical extent of destabilizing our understanding of what we meant by “life”, or the man who invented canned peanut brittle, but if mere technicians, then technicians of human experience.
When I encountered the new Old Dutch Bacon Cheeseburger Slider chips, my initial reaction was to be infuriated – were they seriously presuming to claim that their chip tasted not simply like a bacon cheeseburger (as if this was itself simple!), but like a miniature bacon cheeseburger? The gall! Such airs! Upon further reflection, however, I came to appreciate the possibility that this was more than base pandering to the popularity (outmoded, really) of the slider, that there was something of an intentional provocation about it. I found myself charmed by the idea that such a fine distinction was not in fact meaningless, for it prompts one to say “Okay, of course not . . . but what if?” What if there was a way to capture the nuances of space and scale on the plane of a chip? What if more than taste could be conveyed in a flavour? What if something just tasted small?
Unfortunately they’re basically horrible. Over-seasoned, under-theorized, vulgar and shitty, along with the rest of the Double Dutch ‘Appetizers’ line (Burstin’ Onion, Buffalo Wings & Blue Cheese, Calamari & Tzatziki). What inspired puckishness I inferred is likely totally misplaced, although I do appreciation the ambitiousness of going for ‘fermented milk, garlic, and mollusk’, or ‘deep-fried exploded onion’. Ironically, the line’s greatest failure is not in the domain of taste, but in everything else about the chips: thick-cut, wide-wale, rippled chips with flavouring powder caked on, cloyingly dense, somehow achieving simultaneously the impression of dehydration and dampness. It makes a wretched offering.
I’ve always been a fan of plain, myself.