Peeling Away the Mysteries of Potato Chips

Writer Allen Kurzweil, author of Leon and the Champion Chip, discusses the snack that symbolizes Super Sunday.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The snack aisle at your local supermarket may be a bit more crowded these days, well Super Bowl Sunday is just five days away. Not only is that the biggest sporting event of the year, it's the biggest snack day as well. And of course the kind of the snacks is the potato chip. In 2002 Americans consumed over 12 million pounds of potato chips on Super Bowl Sunday alone.

If you're consumed with the game, though, you're unlikely to pay much attention to what a remarkable thing the potato chip actually is or whether you may have unwittingly taken a bite out of a champion chip. Fortunately though, some people do pay attention to all those things. Allen Kurzweil is one of them. He's the author most recently of Leon and the Champion Chip. If you have questions about champion chips or if you consider yourself a potato chip connoisseur give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The email address is talk@npr.org. Allen Kurzweil joins us now from the studios of our member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts. Nice to talk to you again Allen.

Mr. ALLEN KURZWEIL (Author, Leon and the Champion Chip): Nice to talk to you Neal.

CONAN: I can only guess what you've got a bag of out there in Boston.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, I'm duty bound actually to have some of the research material with me today.

CONAN: And which particular sort of research material do you have hand?

Mr. KURZWEIL: I brought along the good, the bad, and the ugly. I brought along my favorite chips at the moment, which are very old school, they're thin and crispy. Those are the potato fingers. They're out of Atlanta. And then I was duty bound also to bring some soy crisps, which supposedly are extremely good for you, but I have to say I'll pass on that sort of taste.

CONAN: As a non-eater can I just insert a totally gratuitous yuck.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yes, by all means do so.

CONAN: Yuck.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Anyway, I brought along these chips because, as you so eloquently stated at the outset of the segment, I was compelled to discover the nutritional values of potato chips when my son put me up to studying chips and the scientific nature of potato chips for a children's book.

CONAN: Your son put you up to it?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, he was sick and tired of all these sort of rush-a-shay(ph), arcane subjects I'd been interested in, pocket watches from the 18th century and he said dad why don't you do something on a subject that people really care about. And when it comes to things my son cares about potato chips are front and center.

CONAN: Well, what kind of research is involved? Potato chips you open the bag, insert fingers, there you go.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, that's certainly the scientific attitude that my son brings to the subject matter. But I decided to channel my son's interest through a character of a science teacher named Franklin Sparks. And Franklin Sparks is actually able to come up with all sorts of scientific aspects of potato chip consumption. So, for example, he forces fifth grade students in the novel to study dichotomous classification of potato chips and exothermic reaction, which means they need to find out why some potato chips burn and others don't when you put a flame under them. There were all sorts of research...

CONAN: Oil content? Oil content?

Mr. KURZWEIL: You got it Neal. You obviously have the scientist in you. That's right. If I were to set a flame underneath these soy crisps before me they would not burn at all.

CONAN: Regrettably.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yes. But the potato fingers would burn like bandits I can assure you.

CONAN: Ok. Interesting thing you said at the beginning. You've got your favorite chip at the moment. This is a somewhat fluid category then?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yes. I tend to be somewhat promiscuous in my interests. At the moment it's potato fingers. For a long time I was eating Tim's Cascades while writing the book. And it was from a Tim's Cascade bag that my son and I were able to get a potato chip with a naturally formed smiley face on it, which is part of our collection of potato chips.

CONAN: You have a potato chip collection?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yes. And apparently I'm not only. In fact, there's a rather robust market for interestingly shaped potato chips on eBay. If you log on you'll see. The nice thing about the collecting habit is the postage tends to supersede the cost of the actual purchase.

CONAN: I was just going to say, also, I mean, how do you preserve these? I mean, the normal, you know, bag backing, plastic bag in back, that's not going to work with the potato chip.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, there are different schools of thought on the subject. I tend to go with the Riker boxes, which are normally reserved for butterflies and insects for archival purposes. Ellen DeGeneres, the talk show host, has a cut crystal case in which she houses her smiley face potato chip.

CONAN: Wait a minute, did you just out Ellen DeGeneres as a potato chip fanatic?

Mr. KURZWEIL: (Laughing)

I did, and actually it's a rather unpleasant story, I have to admit to the readers, which is the following. There are in fact two known smiley face chips in the world. Ellen is the fortunate owner of one, and my son Max is the fortunate owner of the other known smiley face chip. And despite his efforts to bring these two chips together, Ellen and her people have refused.

CONAN: So, no smiley face chip smack down?

Mr. KURZWEIL: No, apparently not. We're going to ramp it up a little bit to see if we can bring the two chips together.

CONAN: Now, you and your son, while you're awaiting this momentous event, some of the experiments you conducted, tell us about one that involved a device called the Extermitater.

Mr. KURZWEIL: The Extermitater is probably my son's favorite, because it involves combustion and trajectory, which is a, the two principle scientific interests of the 10-year-old American boy. Basically we went to Home Depot and bought a 5-foot length of plastic plumbing pipe, put a cap at the end of one end, shaved down the end of the other, bought a little camping stove lighter, and then, went to the pharmacy and bought some hairspray. And we also bought about 50 pounds of potatoes, Idaho potatoes. And the combination allows you to launch potatoes about 20o yards, with a very satisfying 'thunk' sound.

And that experiment, of course, is spelled out in the Adventures of Leon and the Champion Chip.

CONAN: Well, if you'd like to get in on our conversation on potato chips, their purpose and divinations, give us a call at 800-989-8255. You can also email us at talk@npr.org. And, let's get started with Nancy. Nancy is calling us from Bend, Oregon.

NANCY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi Nancy.

NANCY: Well, I wanted to concur about Tim's Cascade to being among some of the best in the world. With its flavor varieties they have some really unique ones, with dill pickle being my personal favorite.

Mr. KURZWEIL: I like the dill myself.

NANCY: As well as, at times, they have the limited edition Coney Island chip, which unbelievably tastes like a hot dog with mustard.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Hmm. I've never tasted that one an I don't even think it's on our list of 1,100 different brands and flavors of potato chips, so we have to add that one.

NANCY: The Coney Island is definitely an awesome one. And then, the Kettle Chips, you know, comes into a whole new gourmet category. They have a spicy Thai out these days...

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, I'm going to have to part company with you there, Nancy. I like my potato chips thin and crispy, and the minute you get into the kettle, you're starting to talk about a thicker chip and I'm not as keen on those.

NANCY: Yeah, we'll Tim's is pretty thick though, because I'm not a thin fan at all.

CONAN: Yeah. Nancy, does the Cascade part of the name, does that suggest it's origin is in the Pacific Northwest?

NANCY: Yes, it is, as well as Kettle is right over in Salem, Oregon.

CONAN: Ah ha.

NANCY: They're not only a fantastic producer of all kinds of gourmet food products, they're really a great attribute to their community as well.

CONAN: Now here, I'd obviously succumbed to alternate marketing. I thought kettle was a style and not an original place, like, I guess the original ranch dressing comes from an original ranch somewhere. So original Kettle chips come from Kettle Oregon?

NANCY: Well, it's Kettle Brand Foods.

CONAN: Ah, okay.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, no, I think actually the kettle, the kettle variety actually has been found in any number of chips. Cape Cod produces a kettle drum variety of chip as well. But I suspect that when the Superbowl chip-off takes place there'll be a lot of Seahawks fans digging into the Cascade chips.

NANCY: Yes. And the kettle brand, one more they have that I think is absolutely fabulous is their ruffled salt and pepper variety.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, those are very good. I have to say though, in the interest of balance, we should not understate the extraordinary richness of potato chips coming out of Pittsburgh, and in fact Pennsylvania, as a whole. State for state, Pennsylvania has more potato chips being made by small manufacturers and chip-makers than any other state in the nation. They are to potato chips what the French are to cheese.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yes.

CONAN: Well, excuse me just a minute, Nancy. Let me ask you about that. So these microfries, if you will, are they to the chip industry what microbrews are to the beer industry?

Mr. KURZWEIL: They are, but they actually have a longer history too. Because they're not a recent outgrowth in response to the large potato chip manufacturers, but in fact the origins of potato chip production go back to Pennsylvania. Lay's, and Ayer's (ph), and Martin's, and any number of other chips originally started in the Pennsylvania area.

CONAN: I did not know that. Nancy, thanks very much for the call.

NANCY: Thank you. And I just want to say one last thing, if I might?

CONAN: Go ahead.

NANCY: If there are any potato chip manufacturers out there listening? We have been trying to get a company to come out with a pepperocinni variety chip for years, friends and I have been on a smallish campaign. So...

CONAN: The Holy Grail of chips, if you will.

NANCY: Yes. Pepperoncini.

CONAN: All right, Nancy, good luck, and good luck snacking on Sunday.

NANCY: Bye bye.

CONAN: Bye bye. Let's go now to Boone (ph). Boone's calling us from Cody, Wyoming.

BOONE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon Neal.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

BOONE: Long time, first time.

CONAN: Oh, well thanks for the call then.

BOONE: Um, every year for Christmas one of our suppliers sends us a tin of chocolate covered potato chip, which are excellent.

CONAN: Really? I had to stop and think about that for a second. I guess...

BOONE: But, uh...

CONAN: Allen, are you familiar with the chocolate covered potato chip?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Regrettably so. I, again, I have to disagree a little bit. I love chocolate, I spend as much time eating chocolate as I do eating potato chips. But it's the same attitude as I have towards alcohol and desserts. I love them both, but I don't think they should be merged.

BOONE: Okay, well...

Mr. KURZWEIL: And that's the Bubba Rum, these, the one's I've had anyway, have not been extraordinarily tasty.

BOONE: Well, my question was though, when they manufacture them, how do they keep them crisp?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, I don't have an answer for you, because in fact, the only time I ever had chocolate dipped potato chips they weren't fresh. In fact they had a kind of rancid-y quality.

CONAN: That might have affected your judgment!

Mr. KURZWEIL: A better choice for the gift giver, it seems to me, is to offer up a subscription to the chip of the month club, which someone did in the course of my research. And so every month I get a sampling from a fellow named Anchor O'Reilly, who gives me this extraordinary bounty of American potato chip.

CONAN: This is about the fifth time I've said this in this interview. There's a chip of the month club?

Mr. KURZWEIL: There was a chip of the month club in my story before I even realized there actually was, and is, a chip of the month club in the United States. Absolutely. And apparently they do a thriving business.

CONAN: You learn something, five or six new things, every day on this program. Boone...

KURZWEIL: That's what I'm here for.

CONAN: ...Boone, thanks very much for the call.

BOONE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Allen, I guess that brings us to the subject we've been talking about, you know, many manufacturers and other things, but there is also the processed potato chip. The one that is, well it isn't sliced so much as assembled.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Right. I'm not as much of a fan of the processed, produced potato chip as I am of the naturally formed ones. That said, potato chip cans, which is the housing that most of these processed chips arrive in, are very, very useful when it comes to scientific experimentation.

For instance, you can create a wireless antenna out of a potato chip can, to extend the radio signal of your laptop computer. And you can create cameras, which some of the students in "Leon and the Champion Chip" do using potato chip cans.

CONAN: There is also a theory that I've read, I can't imagine where, that a Pringle, it describes a negative curve corresponding to a shape that Einstein conjectured best represents the form of the universe.

Mr. KURZWEIL: You have been doing some, your research. Yes, in fact, the saddle shaped chip that Pringles is famous for, is known to mathematicians as a hyperbolic paraboloid. And I will spare your listeners the scientific formula for said paraboloid. But that was in fact the shape that Einstein conjectured, that negative curvature was a shape allied to the shape of the universe.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Tim. Tim's calling us from Prescott, Arizona.

TIM (Caller): Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Um hm.

TIM: I just wanted to ask you, what kind of encounters of flavors have you happened upon, especially internationally, because I know speaking from personal experience with deployments with the Army, one thing we ran across was ketchup flavored chips, and I've never even seen, you know, never even encountered anything like that in the States. And it was certainly popular, at least in the Middle East.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, it's interesting. Actually, potato chip flavors are culturally determined, as is so much else. So, ketchup flavored chips are not only popular in the Mid-East, they're the number one selling potato chip in Canada. Seaweed is a particularly big flavor in the Asian markets, and the Mexican market is big on chicken flavored potato chips.

All of this information, by the way, I gleaned when I took a road trip with my son to Snaxpo, the International Junk Food Festival that takes place every two years.

CONAN: There's an International...ahhh...go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm giving up now. Tim, thanks very much for the call.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And before we let you go, Allen, give us some idea, we all know something of the ritual when the guy comes over with the bottle of the wine, uncorks it there, and we smell the cork and then, you know, look and see if there's any...what's the ritual (cell phone rings) to help you determine when to turn off your cell phone, and secondly, when to, how to discern which is a great chip?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, I'll conduct the kind of tasting that takes place in the book to give you a sense of potential pretentiousness that chip tasters in fact can offer up.

I'm now going to eat a chip (crunching). And I can tell by its taste that it's an early harvest. You can look at the dark speckling which suggests it's a sugary hybrid. It's got a nice, perky aroma and it starts off boldly. It's got a russet-y flavor and a sturdy follow through.

And so, for the connoisseur of the potato chip, you can use all of the pretentious language that the wine lover uses, but I happen (cell phone rings) to be old school and share my son's appreciation for chips simply as sources of grease, salt, and oil.

CONAN: And, strangely enough, those are people calling to tell you you're on the radio, Allen. Anyway, Allen Kurzweil, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Thanks Neal.

CONAN: Allen Kurzweil, potato chip connoisseur and the author of Leon and the Champion Chip. He joined us from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR. Lynn Neary will be here tomorrow. We'll see you from Wassau, Wisconsin, on Thursday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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