Battle of the Cheap Potato Chips: Wise vs. Lay’s


The gloves are on, the dukes are up! The battle of the cheapskate chips is joined.

No potato product is more characteristically American than potato chips. They were invented in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853, and instantly became a hit, especially among folks who valued crispness as a cooked-potato trait over other qualities. (You know who you are–those who scavenge among a batch of fries or hash browns for the small, dark, crunchy bits.)

These potato chips were considered to be perfect unto themselves for nearly 140 years, at which point the simple chip made only from thin-sliced potatoes became obsolete, as dozens upon dozens of variations were spun off by such competing companies as Utz, Frito-Lay, Wise, and Herr’s. Now we have kettle chips, “handcooked” chips, and chips composed from mashed potatoes, in flavors that sometimes sound absurd, including Hawaiian sweet onion, salt-and-vinegar, guacamole, sour-cream-and-chive, jalapeno, and Carolina barbecue. It seems like no one wants potato chips to actually taste like potatoes anymore.

Of course, the ulterior motive of the creators of these chips involves charging more for them, and, as a byproduct, ramping up the calories and chemical content. When I visited a dozen delis in preparation of this piece, I discovered that the 50-cent bag of chips–staple of zillions of work and school lunches–is almost a thing of the past. In fact, the plain unadorned chip has become as dim a memory as 19th-century America.

But this “heirloom chip,” as we might call it, still persists, though delegated to the lowliest level of the rack. Why should anyone sell it, when the brash flavors of today command 99 cents per bag for scarcely more chips? Lay’s and Wise were the only brands I could find still willing to sell a meager 50-cent bag of plain chips, so I decided to pit them against each other as a Battle of the Dishes, which is a regular feature of Fork in the Road.

Accordingly, I poured the competing chips in side-by-side bowls and put my nose near them to inhale their salty and spuddy aroma. I noticed that the Lay’s chips were almost self-consciously pale, while the Wise chips were nearly ruddy, with little bits of skin rimming some of the chips. The Wise chips had been cooked longer and seemed slightly thicker, as if the kettle chips had had an influence, and the normal chips were trying to emulate them.

A 50-cent bag of either weighed in at 200 calories, although the labels noted that Lay’s were slightly saltier. Both bags were filled with 1.25 ounces of product, which translates into about 30 chips. The Lay’s bag was nearly as pale as the chips themselves. It had “Classic” emblazoned across the label, to give these cheapskate chips some shred of dignity, or to warn you, that if you purchase this product, you’re a person with no imagination. The blue-green metallic Wise bag was somewhat disturbing in its design, with the stylized winking owl at the top.

So, which bag won? The Lay’s had a more out-front oily taste, and a slightly greater saltiness. The Wise aimed at being more rustic and newfangled. If I want a retro-chip, like the kind I ate as a kid, it’s Lay’s all the way.

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