Chips and bits

Chips and bits

Chips and bits

When he's hungry enough, Matthew JC. Powell will eat just about anything . . .

Afew weeks ago, I bought myself a packet of potato chips. This may seem unremarkable to you, to say nothing of a fairly lame opening for an At large column. However, it was a reasonably notable event in my life, for the simple reason that I wouldn't normally do such a thing.

I don't actually like potato chips. Can't really put my finger on why, I just don't. It's nothing against potatoes - with both Welsh and Irish ancestry, I'm genetically predisposed to liking potatoes. It's certainly not a health thing - my diet would be very different if I gave two hoots about my fitness and well being. I just don't dig potato chips. Corn chips, sure - give me a Dorito any day. I'm also partial to anything in a `puff'.

Nonetheless, I found myself waiting for a train, and strangely drawn to a packet of Lay's Cheddar Cheese and Onion variety. As I've said to you before on numerous occasions, I'm a sucker for clever marketing, and something about this chip packet just set my mouth to watering.

The pack had a corner slash on it, which proudly proclaimed `NEW! Thin and Crispy'. Now, I ask you: who would not be intrigued by such a claim? I've had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the potato chip industry over the years, but this grabbed me in some fundamental part of my soul. You see, even though I haven't eaten a crisp for some years, I do have memories of them from childhood. In those halcyon days, all potato chips were thin, and as I recall they were also crispy. That was more or less the point of that snack genre.

I have to presume from this marketing ploy that the years between the last potato chip I ate and this new innovation have seen the rise and fall of thick, squishy potato chips. It's a horror I cannot imagine, and may go some way to explaining why I haven't eaten any lately.

These things come and go, as in any other industry. Tastes change, fashions change. What's popular one day will be a forgotten retro relic the next. The manufacturers of snack foods are as driven by the need to keep up with that change as anyone else. I hope that there is some potato chip equivalent of Australian Reseller News for the Smiths and Lays out there. If not, I pity them having to guess all the time.

I'm reminded, actually, of such an experiment in potato chip guesswork from when I was a kid in Canada. The Hostess Foods Corporation, most famous for Twinkies and similar bizarre cake and cream-based treats, made a range of potato chips that came in shiny paper-lined foil packaging. Very swish, it was, although I didn't appreciate the fact at the time. As well as the usual flavours - salt and vinegar and so on - Hostess chips came in a range of exotic flavours, such as garlic, and ketchup. They'd introduce new exotic flavours every few months, and everyone would rush out to try the new flavour as soon as it hit the shelves. If the flavour was a hit, it would stay in the range for a year or more. If not, it would vanish, usually pretty quickly.

One summer, they introduced a range of new exotic flavours, including cherry, grape and orange. That's right, fruit-flavoured potato chips. Being young and stupid, I tried them all. You can imagine what they were like, so I don't have to elaborate I'm sure. It was pure optimism on my part to think, after I had tasted the disgusting cherry chips, that the grape or orange would be any better. What can I say . . . hope springs eternal.

Needless to say, these flavours didn't last. In the ensuing years, Hostess ran into financial difficulties and was eventually swallowed by one of the larger companies - General Foods, I think. Now, the company's core brands are still on the shelves, but it's well and truly out of the chip business.

You're probably expecting me to wrap this up with some allegory about the tech industry, right? Somehow, the potato chips are a metaphor for silicon chips, or something like that, right? No, I don't think so. I bought my potato chips from a machine, but that's about the only technology connection I can think of here.

If there's a moral to be drawn, you're welcome to draw it, but I don't feel like it. After a year full of Y2K and DoJ and, what, nine columns about Star Wars, I just felt like telling a story about potato chips.

Have a safe and happy holiday, and hopefully we'll all be back next year.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@

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