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Simple potato chip gets a makeover
An English rose in Georgia
Lesley Francis - SBF
Lesley Francis grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. - photo by File photo

Earlier this month, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, launched a controversial new weapon in the quest to expand its dominance of the highly competitive grocery market in the United Kingdom — the prosecco and elderberry-flavored potato chip.

Yes, according to British newspaper The Mirror (www.mirror.co.uk), the snack’s package claims to embrace the “sweet, delicately fragrant elderberry with the festive fizz of prosecco,” referring to the dry Italian sparkling wine. These chips are reported to be sprinkled with pink glitter designed to fizz in your mouth.

This, of course, is just the latest in the long line of British potato chip flavors such as Yorkshire Wensleydale and Cox apple chutney, Gressingham duck with plum sauce and spring onion, roasted lamb with rosemary and garlic, and the always-popular flame-grilled steak. Tesco no doubt launched this new product in response to competitor Marks & Spencer’s recent winter berries and prosecco with fizz and sparkle. Remember, we are talking potato chips here.

In Britain, potato chips are called “crisps.” The word “chips” is used to describe french fries — hence, the traditional British dish of “fish and chips.” No matter what you call these round, thin-cut, deep-fried potato snacks, they have been around for a couple of hundred years.

Controversy obviously gravitates to this savory snack because the British and the Americans both lay claim to its invention. I remember learning when I was studying history at Bristol University that in the 19th century, some unscrupulous owners of bars — called “public houses” or “pubs” in the U.K. — would add salt to their beer to encourage patrons to buy more to slake their thirst. In modern times, we are encouraged to buy salty snacks, which, of course, will make us thirstier!

Back to the history of potato chips. Americans will normally cite the story of George Crum, a chef at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga, New York, in the mid-1800s. The legend goes that Crum was trying to teach a difficult diner a lesson. When a plate of fried potatoes was sent back for not being fully cooked, Crum thinly sliced a potato, cooked it to a crisp, threw salt all over it and sent it back out to the diner. To Crum’s surprise, the diner loved it. The “Saratoga chip” was born.

On the other hand, a famous English cookbook from the 1800s called “The Cook’s Oracle” advised the reader to “peel large potatoes … cut them in shavings round and round … dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping.”

The idea of mass-producing potato chips really took off in the early 20th century.  The Mikesell’s Potato Chip Company was established in Dayton, Ohio, in 1910, and claims to be the “oldest continuous operating potato chip company in the United States.” The Smiths Potato Crisp Company of London followed in 1925, and upped the ante by adding a pinch of salt to its product. However, the real change to the competitive landscape came in 1954, when the Tayto Crisp Company was founded in Dublin by Irishman Joe “Spud” Murphy. (I am not making this up! Look at the company’s website at www.taytocrisps.ie.)  He started adding flavors to his product, and soon was selling cheese and onion, barbecue, and salt and vinegar — all still with us today. Finally, Frito-Lay’s brand “Ruffles” introduced ridges to potato chips in
1983 to provide structural integrity for dipping.

And the industry has grown. The global market for the snacks last year was a whopping $374 billion (yes, with a “B”!), according to research house Nielsen. North America accounts for about a third of that total, and its “salty snacks” category was $28 billion (another “B”!).

“The competitive landscape in the snacking industry is fierce,” said Susan Dunn, Nielsen’s executive vice president.
I guess that’s the reason we now have prosecco and elderberry flavor.

God bless America!

Email Francies at lesley@francis.com or go to www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

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