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Crunch packs punch

You probably had to work today, because most employers still haven't caught on to the fact that March 14 holds the lofty distinction of being National Potato Chip Day. Fortunately, most break rooms are thoroughly stocked with that salty king of s...

Potato chips

You probably had to work today, because most employers still haven't caught on to the fact that March 14 holds the lofty distinction of being National Potato Chip Day. Fortunately, most break rooms are thoroughly stocked with that salty king of snacks so you can still celebrate unofficially.

And why shouldn't the spud-derived, salt-covered victuals have their own day? They're delicious. They're fun. They're tradition. And behind that crunch that we take for granted is an intriguing history and, often, a massive operation.

Making the chip

Mike Bormann, production manager for the Barrel O' Fun snack factory in Perham, Minn., estimates that their plant goes through about eight to 10 truckloads of potatoes per day. The spud-bearing tractor trailers are tilted up by a hydraulic ramp, and the potatoes pour onto a conveyor belt. From there, they move toward a sorter that separates the larger potatoes from the smaller ones - the smaller taters will be used to make chips in smaller-sized bags.

Typically, potatoes are fried the same day they arrive, Bormann says. Before that process, the potatoes make their way into a cylindrical peeler. The inner wall of the peeler is abrasive - as is a spinning piece inside the cylinder - and the skins are thus worn away.

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A conveyor belt moves the naked spuds past an inspection area where workers pull out subpar spuds. An eight-blade cutter awaits the inspected potatoes, after which they get a bath to remove excess surface starch.

As they enter the fryer, paddle wheels slow down the progress of the chips until they reach a mesh chain that pushes them under the oil and moves them along. The golden gems emerge from the other side.

The process is somewhat different for kettle-style chips, which Bormann says have grown in popularly. They are cut in thicker slices, cooked for a longer time at a lower temperature and get to skip the starch-removing bath. Also, they cook while floating in a vat instead of being forced under the oil.

Whether regular or kettle chips, once they're cooked the final steps are the same. They pass through a rotating barrel where they are coated with the appropriate seasoning and fall into a machine with a number of holding compartments. After that compartment is filled to the proper weight, the chips are released to the bagging machine.

Chip history 101

Some have credited George Crum with inventing the potato chip. The story goes that, in 1853, Crum, a chef at a New York restaurant, was fed up with a customer who sent back two or three plates of French fries. The customer had complained that they were too thick. In frustration, Crum is said to have cut the potatoes super-thin and cooked them to a crisp. To the contrary of Crum's intention, the diner is said to have liked them. They were called Saratoga chips.

But, M.W. Grossmann, owner of the Official French Fries Pages, doesn't believe that was the first potato chip in history. As his site notes, culinary historian Karen Hess wrote that that a recipe in "The Virginia House-wife," first published in 1824, calls for frying "shavings" in boiling lard until "they are crisp."

So the creation of the thin, fried, crunchy potato was at least not utterly new at the time of Crum.

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The potato chip today

However it all started, potato chips have come to be the most popular snack food in the United States, with more than $6.3 billion in sales in 2006, according to the National Snack Food Association and "Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery" magazine. That's $1.47 billion more than the next highest seller in 2006 - tortilla chips.

"The crunch, the taste, I think, is something most people remember from their childhood and is a comfort food to a lot of people," says Jim McCarthy, president of the NSFA. And it is a good complement for other foods. The NSFA's data indicates that most potato chips are typically consumed as part of a meal.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

Related Topics: AGRIBUSINESSAGRICULTURE
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