Friday, August 14, 2009

CRUNCH: In Pursuit of the Perfect Potato Chip

A chip off the old block

It's not that I need an excuse to indulge in my favorite junk snack food, potato chips.

But when I heard Dirk Burhans, author of the scholarly CRUNCH! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, interviewed on NPR, I had license to crunch my way through six states. Burhans confirmed what I had always suspected: I wasn't just pigging out when I sought out regional chips. I was engaging in culinary anthropology.

"This is my scholarly pursuit," I said to myself as I grabbed a bag of Tom's in Tennessee. "Just doin' my homework," I muttered under my breath when I snagged a bag of Mister Bees (my home town's regional chip) in West Virginia.

"Say 'Mister Bee,' please." On second thought, don't bother.

But in spite of Burhans' recommendation of chips fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (I forget his rationale), I was disappointed. They left a waxy aftertaste in my mouth.

I discovered the perfect potato chip while driving through eastern Ohio, considered the Mecca of the local chip. These didn't come in a bag. The straight-from-the-fryer potato chips, made to order, were as local and delicious as you can get.

Bagless chips from the Flying Dog Cafe in Nelsonville

In Southern California, Nick and Stef's in downtown LA once served a homemade potato chip during their happy hour, but they cut them off a couple years ago. Smitty's in Pasadena still serves a hot-0ff-the-fryer chip, free at the bar or $5 from the menu. The free chips make up for the double-digit Manhattan I like to order at the bar.

Inspired by the chips I crunched in Ohio, I decided to try my hand at chip making. I borrowed Altadena Hiker's mandolin and went to work slicing the spuds. I heated the vegetable oil to 375 degrees, fried the potatoes to a golden brown and sprinkled with sea salt.

Here's what I discovered. The perfect potato chip is imperfect. Some cooked dark brown, others light. Some paper thin, others thicker.

And as it turns out, I have a knack for imperfection.


altadenahiker said...

But were they good? Were they better than the famous pomme frites?

(And I'm assuming you didn't poke your eye out.)

Susan C said...

Yes, they were damn good!

While I was getting the hang of the mandolin, I accidentally cut a few potato matchsticks. I didn't want to waste them, so I threw them into the hot oil, and ya' know what? They were the best.

So I've concluded that chips are great but sticks (or pomme frites) are da' bomb.

Susan C said...

Oh, and no eyes or fingers were harmed in the making of the chips.

pasadenapio said...

Thanks for this! My mom made homemade potato chips when I was a kid in the '50s and '60s, and all the neighborhood kids were jealous.

whalechaser said...

Culinary anthropology....hummmnn. I think I may steal that phrase for one of my jaunts over the edge in junk food. Loved this post!

Margaret said...

Have you tried Rusty's Island Chips? They are regional. They are made on Balboa Island in Orange County. I think you can get them at Bristol Farms.

Jean Spitzer said...

Culinary anthropology--love it! Great chips are more easily found. Do you have a local source--not homemade--for terrific fries?

Desiree said...

Yum! Thanks for the tip re: Smitty's

AmyR said...

Too bad that place in Nelsonville is gone. My sister goes to school in nearby Athens, and I would love to have gone there.

Mandolins scare me. Your chips look delicious!

Susan C said...

PIO, Wow! Talk about making your house the kid-magnet.

Whalechaser, Thanks. Yea, we start justifying a lot of food felonies with that one.

Margaret, I had never heard of Rusty's and then, wouldn't you know it. I went to Heirloom for breakfast this morning and they were sitting on the counter. I grabbed a bag for later.

Jean, When the Mondrian Hotel in W. Hollywood first opened years ago, they served terrific fries. The secret ingredient was fresh rosemary.

I actually love the french fries at Houston's.

Desiree, Problem with Smitty's is that I have no self control with those "bottomless" bowls of chips.

Susan C said...

Amy, University of Ohio? I love the Athens area and drove straight through there.

I'm going to call that place in Nelsonville to confirm that they really are permanently closed.

This mandolin had a little device that cradles the vegetable, so no danger of slicing fingers. I recently used one without that feature at my Japanese cooking class and it scared the s*** out of me.

I'm going to look for one like AH's.

Cafe Pasadena said...

PT are so tasty but usually unhealthy. Regular eating of this will clog up my arteries & prematurely age my cells. Homemade is probably the healthiest way to go.

I wunder which is better to eat: PT or French Fries, if I were restricted to just one?

Anonymous said...

Golden hiued potato chips served in a aqua Baur bowl atop an oak table. Staging...can't we all admit it? thats really where perfection lies.

CB3Dot said...

I never quite got the hang of potato chips. I think I might have bought 5 bags in my lifetime. The edges of the chip scratched the roof of my mouth and squeezed between my teeth, thus sending me on a search and destroy mission toothpicks or glass of liquid with which to gargle and flush. But one day, there arrived some on the table, as a group of us ordered XXX, Heiniken and a coupla ‘merican brands, a bowl of thinly sliced chips. I laid one on my tongue, pretending I was catholic (small “c”) and practicing the communion thang. As it softened, and the spices, salt, etc., started working their magic, I bethough to meself, “Maybe, just maybe.” I had a few, then a few more, a beer and a few more and then the mushroom cloud of enlightenment lowered to my level. This is the way you get hooked. I had successfully dodged the acid, mushrooms, weed, and all the evils of the 60’s and 70’s. Never toked and by extension never inhaled. Then there was this li’l biddy innocent chip. No way was I going down the road of adiction, the path to perdition and all the evils that flow therefrom. But sometimes, of an evening, sitting on the deck with a Heiniken, I just wonder. Should I . . .?

AmyR said...

Susan - yep, University of Ohio. My sis loves it there.

Ooh, that kind of mandolin sounds okay.

Susan C said...

CP, I think it's a toss-up between chips and fries. If we're talking the Hiker's fries, they are the most delicious but also the unhealthiest. They're very skinny, so lots of surface area to absorb oil, and they're double fried. Oy vey!

Fat fries (aka steak fries) have the least amount of oil, but I don't like those.

PA, Leave it to you to spot the Bauer bowl. And, after all, isn't life a stage, as you know too well from your artfully staged vignettes.

CB3, Quite a story you wove there! I admit to a potato chip addiction, but I try to keep it under control. It was hard when they become my favorite tool for gaining weight.

Amy, I'd love to hear from you sometime how your sister ended up selecting that college.

Italo said...

THe perfect potato chip is imperfect! YOU ARE MY GURU! :D

Susan C said...

Thanks, Italo. I'm glad to be someone's guru.

JCK said...

Let us know when you're having the Pomme Frites partay, and we'll be over!

Tony said...

We've been frying tortilla chips at home; we'll give some potato matchsticks a shot!

/What kind of potato; russet? or yukon gold?

Wesley said...

Excellent home made chips at Elements Restaurant and catering Kitchen off of Fair Oaks in Pasadena. Opening a second location on El Molino adjacent to the Playhouse In October

Susan C said...

Tony, I used russet potatoes.

Wesley, Thanks so much for the great tip. I haven't been to Elements.

SinoSoul said...

I don't have a post on this particular restaurant yet but... Westside Tavern is turning out beautiful "potato chips" seen on their menu. They accompany all of their sandwiches at no extra charge.

They were ungreasy, uniformly browned (at least by the 10pm restaurant lighting), had medium crunch and were mostly cut evenly.

From my experience there, I'm 99% sure the kitchen would be willing to serve these without an actual order of sammie.

Cafe Pasadena said...

SC, where were you at de vroman's cupcake competition a few nites ago? said...

We like the salt and vinegar variety with a nice Schneider Weisse. Delicioso! Z

Susan C said...

SinoSoul (Tony), Thanks for the great tip about the chips at Westside Tavern. I've never been there.

Cafe, I missed the cupcake event. I take it you were there for a nibble or two?

Pantaloon, What a great pairing - German beer and salt and vinegar chips. I don't like most flavored chips, but I do have a weakness for the vinegar ones.

Cafe Pasadena said...

SC, only a nibble or two...dozen.

I've been to Elements organic restaurant. Rather, it's been to me. They catered last yr's yr-end party of the SoPas Tour of Roses Assoc. It was very good! But, for some unexplained reason I fell in love with talking & picture taking instead of going back for 2nds & 3rds! Still upsets me to think of it.

Anonymous said...