August 15, 2012
August 17, 2012

You say potato, I say pot-ah-toe … chip. And that’s just the start of it.

Though thin and flat may be the national standard — and bestselling variety — of this very popular snack, regional and sometimes hyper-local preferences for different levels of crunch, thickness, seasonings and endless other elements have created a surprisingly diverse culinary patchwork of chip styles around the country.

Yep, the chips you prefer in the Northeast could be wildly different than those savored in the South.

Midwesterners, for example, prefer a thicker, more substantial chip. Big, hearty chips also sell well in New England and the Rockies, though in the latter area those progressive mountain folk want theirs with artisanal seasonings. Southerners love barbecue flavor, but it needs to be sprinkled on thin, melt-in-your-mouth chips.

Southwestern states predictably go for bold and spicy. Local flavors, such as New Orleans Cajun and Mid-Atlantic crab seasoning, find their way onto chips in those places. And people all across the country, it seems, love a curly, shattering kettle chip.

People like the potato chip they grew up with and there’s a very strong brand recognition and brand loyalty to the chip you grew up with.

Potato chips are America’s number one snack, according to the Snack Food Assoication out of Rosslyn, VA, and we spent $9 billion on them in 2010, 50 percent more than what we spent on the No. 2 snack, tortilla chips. More than half of those sales go to Frito-Lay North America, whose original thin, crispy chip is the top-seller. But hometown styles still claim their territory.

In the Pacific Northwest, big bite and bigger flavors, such as jalapeno made from real peppers and a salt and vinegar chip that makes you pucker tend to be very popular.

Over in the Rockies, kettle-cooked chips pair their crunchy bite with artisanal seasonings such as red wine vinegar, spinach and artichoke, and balsamic and rosemary.

Down the map in the Southwest, people enjoy two varieties of kettle-cooked chips with mouth-numbing heat from jalapenos and habaneros.  People in this region really tend to like this pepper, these stronger, spicier flavor. 

While Southerners like spice, industry executives say, the region’s traditional chip is thin and flaky. The southern consumer prefers a lighter, thinner potato chip.

And then there are the niche chips, the hyper-local flavors that connect people to their culinary heritage.

In New Orleans, there’s a chip called Spicy Cajun Crawtaters, designed to mimic the flavor of a seafood boil. And in Pennsylvania there’s a Philly cheesesteak chip, as well as one meant to taste like boardwalk fries. For other Mid-Atlantic producers crab seasoning is a must, but may be for locals only.

If you’ve never had a blue crab experience, or been at a crab feast, and are visiting the East Coast, you’ll want to try this one!

Advances in potato chip making technology and distribution have flattened what may once have been a much wider variety of regional chip preferences, some analysts and executives say. Potato chip making began in the mid-19th century with mom-and-pop operations in practically any small town with access to potatoes, oil and a kettle to fry them in.

Today, the industry uses “chipping potatoes” grown specifically for the purpose, and has developed technology to produce a more uniform chip. Advances in packaging and the emergence of big box chains mean chips now can travel much farther, spreading once local tastes throughout the country.

For sure, standardization and competition from giant producers like Frito-Lay may have squeezed some smaller companies out of business, executives say. But it may be the predominance of those flat, mass-produced chips that has also kept regional passions alive.

Some flavors that started out as regional specialties — for example, Limon, originally for California — have gained a wider audience

What always happens is that a lot of the regional cuisines have expanded and become more mainstream.  For example, the popularity of Mexican food has helped the “limon” flavor gain fans. 

Good ideas come from everywhere, especially when you think about the changing demographics of this country and how multicultural we’re becoming.  It’s only a matter of time.

Source:  Yahoo. The Associated Press, 8.8.12

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