An early draft of my upcoming PhD thesis

A pack of 'Chakalaka' flavoured crisps.

Working Title: A Comparative Sociopolitical Analysis of Crisp (Potato Chip) Culture and Flavours in Germany and Great Britain

Around Christmas I spent almost three weeks in the UK. Three weeks is a short time, and yet in that time I consumed more crisps than I usually do over the span of several calendar months, if not years. Brits love crisps more than we love our mums; we love crisps more than the royal family, more than complaining about traffic, more indeed than a really well-timed cup of tea. That last one was a joke OF COURSE THERE IS NOTHING WE LOVE MORE THAN A CUP OF TEA JUST WHEN YOU FANCY IT.

I am a crisp child. I was never quite allowed the decadence of taking crisps to school in my lunchbox, but crisps are nonetheless an extremely important cultural touchstone in my family. Crisps are the bridge between beginning to think about dinner and actually sitting down to eat dinner. A glass of wine is sad and forlorn without a crisp to accompany it. When we are on holiday, we sample the local crisps with beer or G&Ts in a celebratory manner, as if it were the first initiation ceremony into an exotic and special land. My brother will look at a bag of crisps and seconds later place the bag down with just the final flakes of translucent potato drifting around the bottom; between these two moments, natural instinct takes hold. There is a shelf in my family kitchen just for crisps. I would, however, imagine that we are average- to low-level crisp eaters on a national scale. So great is the nation’s crisp drive.

And who can blame us? They are a glorious foodstuff: almost weightless, intensely flavoured, and crunchy in a yielding, delicate way. They are of course also extremely deceptive; a small bag contains so few crisps that one almost experiences grief when the packet is empty, but for that fleeting pleasure an incredible amount of calories, salt and fat have been consumed. The British passion for crisps is also a relationship in tension, a desperate battle between lust and virtue.

The crisp aisle in the UK is a gallery, displaying the breadth and depth of human creativity. We have roughly seven standard flavours which are so universally well-known and understood that they are like the planets of the solar system – everybody knows them, and everybody vaguely understands what colour they are (i.e. their packet, in the case of the crisps). The default crisp flavours which form the basis for this gastronomic spectrum are as follows: salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, prawn cocktail, smokey bacon, roast chicken, roast beef, and naturally, ready salted. Salt-flavoured crisps are called ‘ready salted’ in the UK because back in the day (and also still, now, today) one would purchase packs of crisps containing a small sachet of salt so that you could season them yourself. After a period of evolution the modern upgrade, ‘ready salted’, was launched and saved people the bother of salting their own crisps – although we kept the originals because a lot of people still enjoy choosing their own level of saltedness. ARE YOU STARTING TO SEE HOW IMPORTANT CRISPS ARE TO US, PEOPLE.

The seven primary flavours are accompanied by several secondary flavours that are also very well-known but mark you out to be somewhat of a deviant if you prefer them: worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, marmite, etc. You know: weird but good flavours. And then, like the blossoming crown of a tree erupting from its solid stable trunk, from the foundations of these basic flavours thousands of creative new flavours emerge, some short-lived, some more long-lasting: balsamic vinegar and sea salt, black truffle, ham hock and mustard, thai sweet chili, haggis, curry and lemongrass… there is no end to what we can invent and sprinkle on a small piece of fried potato.

In Germany crisps come in two flavours: salted, and paprika. The crisp aisle in the supermarket is typically populated with a couple of variants of salted crisps and then four to twelve different brands all selling more or less identical paprika flavoured crisps. Paprika crisps are red, slightly sweet and spiced in the mildest of ways, as if a paprika ghost had coughed in the vicinity of the crisps while in the factory. To keep things interesting, a lot of German crisp brands will come up with variations of paprika that are almost identical but give them cryptic names to suggest that they are all wildly different and in some way exotic and exciting: ‘Oriental’, ‘Peperoni’, ‘Western Style’, ‘Roasted Paprika’, and my personal favourite, ‘Chakalaka’. I regret to say that I have tried all of these at one point or other and found none of them to have any kind of flavour profile other than red, sweet and slightly spiced.

As time passes German culture is gradually waking up to the idea of more crisp flavours and so we are seeing the emergence of additional flavours such as salt and vinegar, sour cream and onion, and even cheesy tortilla chips. Nonetheless, the selection remains small and a great deal of the market is still dominated by a wide range of crispy pretzels in different shapes or stick form.

Another key difference is the gaping absence of ‘multipacks’ of crisps in supermarkets across the board in Germany. In Britain, it is possible to buy enormous sacks of smaller bags of crisps, either all the same flavour or in a mixture of flavours and inevitably including a particular flavour that nobody will take until it is the only one left. The purpose of these multipacks is to give you the option of taking a cute little portion of crisps with you to have while you are out and about, usually as part of your lunch. See, in the UK we feel that it is completely reasonable to have crisps every day as part of our midday meal. We will pack a sandwich, an apple, perhaps a yogurt and then a packet of crisps. There are small bags of crisps designed for kids to take to school where the crisps are in fun 3D shapes; even shapes that can be slotted together to make bigger shapes before being consumed. We produce CRISP LEGO FOR CHILDREN. CRISP TOYS.

These small bags of crisps are available everywhere, from petrol stations to drugstores to tiny beachside shacks that otherwise only sell cold cans of pop and rentals of sandcastle buckets. Brits need to be able to get hold of a small, delightful handful of crisps at any time and in any circumstance. Biologically we need it.

In Germany we only have the large sharing bags. A bag of crisps is to be generously broken open and eaten with friends or family as an accompaniment to booze. Having crisps with lunch would be strange, like having a small bowl of cornflakes with your beef stew in the evening. This is okay, though, because no one would really desire to eat crisps at any other time, given the restrictive and not entirely tempting portfolio of flavours at our disposal. It is a self-perpetuating system that probably works in our favour, at least in a dietary and cardiovascular sense.

I suppose I have nothing of note to conclude with here other than how obvious the intensity of British crisp culture is once you move abroad and realise that crisps are no more than an afterthought to the rest of humanity. It is a strange epiphany, realising that this diverse and complicated snacking system we have in the UK is just our own, not some natural thing that happens once crisps arrive in any society. I think perhaps the oddest thing about it is that no one cares: the whole world knows that we drink our tea with milk in it and enjoy marmite and have a savoury meal called ‘pie’, and these elements are all woven into the timeless universal British stereotype. But our crisps? No one talks about our crisps. And perhaps that is, in fact, for the best.


Rose T