March 2006 Issue
Sample the state's own varieties of the crunchy, irresistible snack.
There's something about potato chips. The concept is simple: spuds sliced paper thin, deep fried until crispy and sprinkled with salt. We love them, and love to blame them for our dietary woes. They are a guilty pleasure and the bane of every calorie counter. Despite their designation as "junk food," potato chips are the No. 1 snack in this country, and the must-have munchy for parties and picnics. Here in the United States, we consume an average of seven pounds per person, per year. And while the big national brands dominate the $6 billion market, small regional "chippers" have passionate fans and loyal followings.
The folks at Grippo's get a lot of mail from devotees of their chips, made in Groesbeck near Cincinnati since 1959. Lately they've been hearing from soldiers deployed overseas. This letter writer wants chips shipped to him: "I have memories from childhood of sharing your Grippo's Bar-B-Q potato chips with my father on our front porch. To me there is no better potato chip... [but] I have not tasted a bag for over three months now."
Others send heartfelt thank-you notes: "I really appreciate you sending me my hometown favorite chips.... Ever since I was a kid, I loved Grippo's, and while I'm here in Iraq that's what you need most, things from home."
Potato chips are a truly American food. They are said to have been invented at a restaurant in upstate New York around 1853 and took their original name - Saratoga Chips - from the city where they were first served. But Ohioans played a central role in popularizing them and commercializing their production and distribution.
Around 1895, William Tappenden of Cleveland started making potato chips in his home for sale to area stores, delivering them in a horse-drawn wagon. He was the first potato chip wholesaler, and listed potato chips as his occupation in the 1900 census. His product was such a hit that he soon expanded, moving the operation to a barn behind the house where he began using a mechanical peeler and huge cauldron for cooking. In 1958, his daughter Anita told a reporter that when the wagon was replaced by one of the first automobiles in town, she often made deliveries for her father, although she was only 12 at the time. "Traffic," she recalled, "was no hazard for a child in those days."
Cleveland was also home to the original industry trade group, the Ohio Potato Chip Institute. At the inaugural convention held at the Hollenden House hotel in 1931, Daniel Mikesell, who introduced folks in the Dayton area to Saratoga Chips around 1910, was elected treasurer. The group's name was changed to the National Potato Chip Institute in 1937, and this organization, headquartered in Cleveland until 1978, was the predecessor of today's Snack Food Association.
In the early days of production, before packaging was invented to keep this fragile food fresh, all potato chips were locally made and kettle cooked by hand in small batches. Businesses were often family operated. Ohio today boasts 10 regional chippers, more than any other state except Pennsylvania. Some are among the oldest in the country. Most brands are sold within a 50-mile radius of where they are made, and all are available by mail.
Anchor O'Reilly has tasted each and every one of his products. That's the nom de crisp and fictional alter ego of Ned Coyle, a Toledo-based web entrepreneur who founded the Chip of the Month Club with his wife Therese in 1999 (www.anchorsfoodfinds.com). The truck-driving "Anchor" travels coast to coast, collecting and selecting chips produced by regional manufacturers from around the country for club members. "I take my potato chips seriously," he says. "If anybody knows more about potato chips than me, I haven't met 'em."
Coyle explains that just as climate, soil, grape variety and fermentation methods are important in winemaking, the type of potato, oil, salt and the cooking time affect the flavor of potato chips. And as with wine, it takes some education to be a connoisseur. "You want a chip that lets you know the spud's spent time in hot bubbling oil," he says. "Color should range from golden with some browning around the edges to suntanned. A real chip is never flat and doesn't come in a can. They should be gnarled, curled, bent and buckled, and each one should be different." Most important, he adds, is their crispness. There should be an obvious, audible and satisfying crunch. Kettle-cooked chips are crunchier, with a harder "bite" than other kinds.
This chipmeister tells me there are great varieties in Ohio. So I decide to sample the best our state has to offer. In the process, I eat my way through bags full of Ohio history.
This Tiffin company, started by a husband-and-wife team, has been chipping for 85 years and is still family owned and operated. Ballreich's "marcelled" chips got their appellation back in the 1920s because their wavy shape resembled the popular women's hairstyle of the time. The company's original plain chip has a light crunch and the Smokey Sweet Mesquite tastes almost meaty. (www.ballreich.com)
Kettle cooked since 1963 in Massillon and sold right where they are made at 1900 Erie Ave. North. "We make only one kind," says company founder and chief chipper Odell Gainey, "and it's not like anybody else's. My recipe is a secret." The chips are extra crunchy, slightly thicker than most, with a subtle and intriguing pork undertone that comes from the combination of soybean oil and lard in which they're fried. (330/832-8395)
Angelo Grippo started manufacturing rolled sugar cones in 1919 and later added pretzels to his product line. His wife Emma, who took over the business when he died in 1956, added potato chips. The Hot Dill Pickle chips have a nose-tingling scent, heat that lingers in the mouth, and pair up perfectly with a burger or a hot dog. The big taste of the Cheddar and Jalapeno chips raises the question: How can something this small pack so much punch? (www.grippopotatochips.com)
Made in Mansfield by the same family since 1945. According to Jones' Potato Chip Company president Bob Jones, products like his are an antidote to the "sameness" of mass-produced chips that flood the market. "In today's world, something that's unique and local has a special meaning for people." The wavy original is a light chip with a medium crunch. The salt and vinegar version has a definitive tartness, and the sweet honey barbecue delivers a strong, smoky taste. Jones' has also been manufacturing Thomasson potato chips for the past 10 years. That company was founded in Elyria in 1931 and is still a familiar and beloved brand in Lorain County. (www.joneschips.com)
This is the oldest continuously operating chipper in the country. Daniel Mikesell delivered chips, like William Tappenden, in a wagon. Sometimes a bicycle was pressed into service, too. When it broke down, he went to the Wright brothers, who lived down the street, for repairs. Today the Dayton plant produces almost a million pounds of potato chips a week. The unseasoned varieties - Groovy, Original and Old-fashioned - are fried in 100 percent peanut oil, which gives them a distinctive nutty flavor. (www.mike-sells.com)
Originally made in the back room of an Urbana grocery store in 1932, these award-winning kettle-cooked chips are now manufactured at the Schearer's plant, but founder Asa Mumford would recognize the recipe as his own. The chips are noticeably thicker than average, very crunchy, with a taste that never lets you forget you're eating potatoes. (937/653-3491)
Family run for 31 years, the chip maker, headquartered in Brewster, is one of the nation's largest kettle cookers. It takes five pounds of potatoes to make one pound of the signature chip, and the factory turns out 300 pounds an hour. Schearer's also makes super-seasoned variations: Salt and Pepper has a bright edgy flavor, the new Buffalo Wing Bleu Cheese is like a meal in each bite, and Sweet Wasabi Mustard is a surprising, tongue-tingling combination. (www.shearers.com)
A relative newcomer to the field, and appropriately located in Newcomerstown, the company started in 1974. Emphasizing healthy snacks, Tastee chips, made from Yukon Gold potatoes, have half the fat of regular brands and no hydrogenated oils. They deliver a big crunch and rich, buttery potato taste. (www.tasteeapple.com)
These chips have always been kettle fried in pure corn oil. "We were way ahead of the curve on the whole trans-fatty-acid thing," says Steve Wagner, whose parents started the business in their Miamisburg kitchen in 1949. He and his son Brett have added flavored chips to the mix. Salt and Malt Vinegar has an almost beer-like hoppy aftertaste. Chocolate-dipped chips marry sweetness and saltiness - a match made in heaven. (937/866-8808)
Ohio once again made chip history a few years ago, earning a spot in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records for creating the biggest bag of potato chips known to mankind. It weighed in at 1,082.5 pounds, and it required approximately two tons of Ohio-grown spuds, more 700 pounds of oil, and 80 pounds of salt to fill the 8-by-5-foot sack. The chips were cooked and packaged at the 2003 Ohio State Fair by volunteers from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and chipmakers from Ballreich's, Conn's, Jones, Mike-Sells and Shearers to celebrate the potato chip's 150th anniversary.
Curious about how your favorite snack is made? The following companies offer tours:
Conn's Potato Chip Company 1805 Kemper Court, Zanesville, 740/452-4615. Tours by appointment, Mon.-Wed. 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Jones' Potato Chip Company265 Bowman St., Mansfield, 800/466-9424. Tours by appointment Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Shearer's Marketplace 692 N. Wabash Ave., Brewster, 330/767-3426, ext. 236. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Products are discounted and can be purchased in bulk at this factory outlet store in Amish country. Weekly specials plus extra bargains for seniors on Tuesdays.
Mumford's Potato Chips & Deli 325 N. Main St., Urbana,937/653-3491. Call for hours.The staff scoops up your kettle-cooked chips from a big bin and bags them here just like they did in the old days. The small store also sells candy, nuts and caramel corn, and has a cafe where homemade soups, salads and sandwiches are served for lunch.