At some point in the past decade, it felt like kettle-cooked potato chips started to appear everywhere: on grocery store shelves, alongside the likes of classic Utz and ridged Ruffles; in workplaces young and hip enough to boast free office snacks designed to keep workers mindlessly sated; even on airplanes, one of a variety of treats in baskets proffered by attendants on better-than-average flights.
There’s a sheen of handmade wellness that accompanies kettle chips — or if not wellness, then at least wholesomeness. When the chips were revived in the 1980s, the New York Times reports, they were largely reintroduced to the market as artisan chips, from brands like Cape Cod, Tim’s Cascade, Zapp’s, and Kettle Brand. Kettle chips, unlike their continually processed brethren (what you might picture when thinking of the standard Lay’s chip), are fried in batches, dipped and swirled around in hot oil for longer periods of time until they’re crunchier and caramelized to a deeper color. It’s the same process that was used pre-1920s, before technological innovation enabled mass-market chip production, and the same cooking method you could use to make chips at home.
But the old-fashioned appeal of kettle chips belies one highly subjective truth: They are bad.
While some might find it a sensory pleasure to chew on handfuls of spud shards that jab at their gums, I confess I do not. Kettle chips are too hard, too edged, too committed to a brutality of texture to deliver a balanced gustatory experience. No matter the flavor of the chips, the taste nearly always smacks overwhelmingly of oil. Eating a small bagful feels like coating one’s mouth in grease, almost like a salve left over to make up for all the vigorous chomping that tooth and tongue and gums had to engage in to facilitate consumption. All that work, and for what?
Classic thin chips are just as greasy, as evidenced by the shine of one’s fingerprints after reaching into the chip bag one or five or 20 times, but here, the oil is offset by the lightness of the crisp, dissolving on the tongue like a cloud of potato-perfumed air. These are the gentler cousins of the kettle chip, their ethereality of form and flavor miraculously born of industrial manufacturing. When it comes to snacking, there are fewer choices finer than a wholly intact sour-cream-and-onion chip, better yet one whose circumference is roughly that of a hockey puck, its delicate crunch giving way to an allium tang as salty as it is sour.
Baked potato chips, too, are preferable to kettle chips. Not the plain baked Lay’s, which some might liken to “cardboard,” but specifically the baked cheddar-and-sour-cream Ruffles, that perfect freak of nature. There was a time when this variety of chip seemed ubiquitous — in school cafeterias, big-box stores, gas stations — before the mainstream ascendancy of kettle chips. And what an era that was.
(I will not address health or nutrition in my consideration of these chips, as I’m not a goddamn dietician.)
I am not so prejudiced against kettle chips that I will not eat a packet here or there, mostly in the Eater office (office? What’s that?) when there was little else to pick at. But, as someone who has eaten a lot of chips over the course of a lifetime, I feel confident in saying: Don’t settle for kettle, there are better options out there. Ones that boast their own kind of crunch; ones that are not so oppressively thick; ones that bring no pain, only pleasure, to the masses’ endlessly gaping maws.
Goldsuit is a painter and graphic designer based in Seattle.