Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cheddar-Its



When I travel, I collect potato chips. And I eat them, too. I am fascinated by how regionally determined potato chip flavors are. Here in the States, barbecue and sour cream & onion reign supreme, while I myself go for salt and vinegar, a tongue-tingling English combo which has become more easily available here. I never really got the concept of sour cream and onion. In England, home to some of the world's most intriguing and bewildering flavors, you can savor a full meal in a single chip, or crisp: prawn cocktail; ham and pickle; lamb and mint; roast beef and mustard; roast chicken; and many more imaginative flavors that wouldn't fly here. In Thailand, flavors are spicier and more pungent: Thai basil, hot chili squid, spicy seafood, and nori. Thai basil would probably gain a following here, but I am not sure how anything squid flavored would do, despite the ubiquity of calamari. In my cupboard in Queens, I've got a bag of Lay's dill pickle (cornichons a l'aneth)-flavored chips from Canada. I wonder why you can't buy them here. Maybe I should get the Pickle Guy on the Lower East Side to stock them.

Of course the American flavor I am most interested in is Cheddar. There are so many Cheddar-flavored (or implied) snacks in the States. A full 1/4 of the non-candy items in my work's vending machine offer some sort of Cheddar experience: Goldfish Cheddar, Sun Chips--Harvest Cheddar, Combos Cheddar Cheese Pretzels, Smartfood with White Cheddar, Cheeze-Its, and Crunchy Cheetos. Even health food stores carry Cheddar-flavored snacks, but theirs tend not to be of the bright orange variety: Kettle Brand Chips' New York Cheddar with Herbs, Pirate's Booty with Aged White Cheddar, and Smart Puffs with Real Wisconsin Cheddar. Whether you're fooling yourself with supposedly more healthful snack or guiltily feeding quarters into a vending machine, chances are Cheddar will be the flavor of the day.

Having noted the incredible variety of Cheddar-flavored treats all over town, I wanted to try a sampling of them and I wanted to try them out on my friends. The chance came on Sunday night, before a small group of us went out for Egyptian food on Steinway in Queens. Cheddar-flavored snacks may not quite be the appropriate food to whet one's appetite for a North African meal, but they do make for a fun, tasty gathering, especially when you throw a few cocktails into the mix.

I warned my three friends about the tasting, but they were game. Upon entering my apartment and seeing the snacks on offer in pretty little bowls (see picture above), they gasped at the bright orange glow of Wise Ridgies--Cheddar and Sour Cream. It's been a while since any of us have been to parties with artificially colored nibbles. While I mixed the cocktails, my three friends sampled the chips: Wise Ridgies, Sun Chips--Harvest Cheddar, and Kettle Brand Chips' New York Cheddar with Herbs. The Ridgies were initially an arid shock to the taste buds, having the bald flavor of something engineered in a food lab. But after giving them three chances, my friend Rachel actually began to like them, just as you end up giving in and liking a pop song the tenth time you hear it on the radio. The song and the chip are miracles of American marketing. To get any sense of the "harvest" Cheddar, my friends got the wise idea to lick the chip before eating it. Without doing so, it tasted just like any flavored Sun Chip. Soon they were licking all three chips. The winner was the meaty-tasting Kettle Chips with "bold GROWN-UP" cheese. They probably had the most alluring flavor, but I couldn't help but wonder whether we were seduced by the packaging. They seemed to be marketed for women like us, who wanted a snack but didn't want anything bright orange and obviously bad for you. Aren't we in New York, aren't we bold, aren't we grown up?

A lot of slick marketing goes into these crispy, savory snacks. The use of white Cheddar seems to evoke something pure, something that might even make you smarter, or at least appear smart to your fellow consumers. Think of Smartfood and Smart Puffs. Some products bother to localize their Cheddar (in name only), from either Wisconsin or New York, perhaps falsely allying themselves with the local food movement. Some evoke nature with names like Harvest Cheddar and Country Cheddar (Kashi crackers at Whole Foods). My friend Deidre laughed and wondered at what time of year farmer and son go off for the wild Cheddar harvest. I must do a lot more work in unpacking these loaded names.

I hope by now, fair reader, you are a believer that Cheddar is the American cheese and a basic American flavor. If not, go find me baked brie crisps, cave-aged roquefort cruchies, mountain emmenthaler puffs, or goedemorgen gouda chips.

3 comments:

Deidre said...

Your suggestion that when no specific cheese is identified the default is cheddar made me wonder about those other cheesy snacks, Doritos (which I've always hated). Turns out that the type of cheese there is "nacho cheese." And nacho cheese is a fancy way of saying yellowy processed cheese. Yuck. But I saw that there are cheddar Doritos too. I'm afraid I would have to pass on these if they appeared on your usually delicious table!

Lauren said...

An Israeli friend of mine commented recently on how ubiquitous cheese is on American menus. Apparently we add cheese to more foods (salads, omelets, on top of pasta, on our burgers) than is the norm, at least in Israel. I wonder what percentage of these added-cheese items involve some cheddar? Do we just prefer it in our snacks, but not as much in our main courses, or is it equally pervasive in the rest of our diet?

Jen R. said...

I too have pondered the elusive Cheddar harvest, until I realized it must occur just after the San Giorgio spaghetti harvest, when the virgin teenage girls have worked up their biceps to Cheddar-picking strength.

A note on American junk-food "cheddar" flavor - you will nearly always find blue cheese in the ingredient list.