Sodiumland: Potato Chip Taste Test

In Pennsylvania, potato chips are a big deal. Utz, Herr’s, Snyder’s of Hanover, Middleswarth…there are many regional brands, and Commonwealth residents hotly debate which is the best. Families divide.

My wife takes over the chip aisle at Gerrity's.

My wife takes over the chip aisle at Gerrity’s.

Except my wife Teresa’s family. They come together. At holiday dinners at my mother-in-law’s house in Pennsylvania, my wife has taken taste debates to a new level. She had given up potato chips for Lent, which is something along the lines of fish giving up water. As Easter Sunday approached, it wasn’t enough for her to buy a bag or two for breaking the 40-day tuberous fast. No, we had to do more.

We had to organize a taste test.

Greater love hath no man, especially a man watching his sodium intake, than to spend Saturday driving his wife around Luzerne County in search of potato chip varietals to unleash on the family after Easter dinner. We visited Wegman’s, a nearby Sheetz, and the Gerrity’s over on San Souci Parkway. We ended up with eight bags, and a lot of strange looks.

The roster:

  • Wise Unsalted (the baseline/control)
  • Herr’s with Old Bay Seasoning
  • Herr’s Kettle Cooked Cheddar Horseradish
  • Lay’s Dill Pickle
  • Lay’s Sriracha Sauce flavored
  • Middleswarth Bar-b-q
  • Utz Kettle Classics Maui BBQ
  • Utz Kettle Classics Sweet Potato

To my wife’s dismay, we could not find Lay’s Chicken & Waffles flavor. She actually stopped the Lay’s distributor in the aisle in Wegman’s and interviewed him about it. He stopped — actually broke the rhythm of his stocking to talk to her.

Checkout girl looking for an escape route

Checkout girl looking for an escape route

“Can’t. Keep ’em. On the shelves,” he said, nearly pleading for relief from the chippy frenzy. “People are nuts for them.”

I pulled her away; she was about to bring the poor guy to tears with more questions.

“Honey, c’mon,” I said. “He has to wear that polo shirt every day. He has enough problems.”

She was uninterested in my arguments that some food flavors should not be combined. Spicing a potato chip is one thing; making it taste like breakfast is another. She was already thinking about how to organize the test.

The scientific method? Hand ’em out.

We all got a laugh out of the unsalted. Great for my particular diet, but otherwise, what’s the point, the experts wanted to know?

“Well,” I said, “how about something to carry a dip and not interfere?” Everyone got very quiet and stared at me.

“Ooooooohhhh….,” they said, and moved on to the next chip.

Among the munching, Memaw piped up. “Shouldn’t we have a course of sherbet between each one, to cleanse our palates?” Eyebrows raised. Memaw doesn’t joke much. But everyone was too potatoed up to laugh much.

Maui BBQ got a lot of nods, but the Sriracha was more heat than flavor. Dill Pickle had everyone thinking about hamburgers, and generally pleased members of the Vinegar School. Middleswarth are family favorites; you get the smoky taste even before they hit your mouth. Cheddar Horseradish was piquant, but more of the second than the first. The Old Bay really grabbed and caused a lot of division; don’t expect bipartisan movement on those. The Sweet Potato met with general disapproval.

Distributing the samples

Distributing the samples



Stephen, Teresa's nephew, once more into the salty breech.

Stephen, Teresa’s nephew, once more into the salty breech.


Testers took their task seriously.

Testers took their task seriously. Son Joseph (left) and sister-in-law Roseanne.

An hour later, they were still at it. “Celery seed! That’s what that taste is!” “Noooo; it’s coriander!” “These I’d buy again.” “Not me.”

Likely we’ll do a test at Christmas. Can’t tell you what. But I’m sure I’ll be driving all over northeast Pennsylvania getting it.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photos by Adam Barr

Memaw was skeptical.

Memaw was skeptical.

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