Potato chip lovers will want to take a bite out of “Crunch”

“Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip‚“ by Dirk Burhans, c.2008, Terrace Books, $26.95, 203 pages, includes index.

  • Monday, January 26, 2009 10:00pm
  • News

“Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip‚“ by Dirk Burhans, c.2008, Terrace Books, $26.95, 203 pages, includes index.

You’ve been practicing.

Ever since the playoffs began, you’ve been working out, making sure you’re in tip-top shape for the Super Bowl. Really, you wouldn’t want to sprain anything doing the high-five. It’s best to warm up before any sort of victory dance or prayer stance on behalf of your favorite team. There’ll be no spotter needed as you raise your finger to point at a funny commercial.

But that hand-to-mouth motion you use during the game? You need lots more practice on that little maneuver. But just to be sure you’re doing things right, read “Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip” by Dirk Burhans.

Legend has it that George Crum, in a fit of anger in 1853, sliced potatoes paper-thin and fried them in response to a complaint from a customer (some say Cornelius Vanderbilt) alleging that Crum’s potatoes weren’t crispy enough. The legend, though, may be a myth: Crum’s sister may have been the original Potato Potentate.

Potatoes themselves have been around for centuries; archaeological evidence shows they may date back to 11,000 B.C. Most species originated in South and Central America, although hardier potato types were found slightly north. In Europe, it’s thought that the potato made its debut via Spain in the late 1500s. Because they were easy to grow, the spud spread.

Early in the last century, most potato chips were manufactured locally and sold from barrels, boxes or in paper bags. Chips were made slowly and required quick selling, lest humidity turn them stale, which could happen within hours. Oil fires in potato chip factories were common.

By the 1930s, all that changed. New technology made it possible to quickly (and more safely) mass-produce potato chips, and later, to seal the bags so they could be transported farther from the factory. Suddenly, the snack was out of the bag.

Through the years, potato chips have been the object of lawsuits and takeovers, mergers and name-changes. They’e been influenced by television and have influenced pop culture. You can get chips in a cylinder, a bag, or a box in plain, baked or ridged, and in lots of flavors including jalapeno, dill pickle and barbecue. You can buy Goth chips, organic chips and, believe it or not, if party-planning time is running out, you can buy chips online.

Can you pass the bag over here, please?

While “Crunch!” sometimes is a little heavy on local history – particularly, but not entirely, that of the Midwest and Ohio Valley area – it’s basically a very fun book. The author says he wrote this book because he never knew there were so many brands of chips and was amazed to find that each chipper made a different-tasting product. His gee-whiz willingness to examine the industry right down to the crumbs is what makes this book such a tasty one.

Before you stuff a handful of crispy goodness in your mouth during the game, read “Crunch!” For fans of potato chips and other gotta-have-it snacks, this book is worth its salt.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.

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