I do not consider myself a parsnip person. If you were talking taro to me, I'd assume you're referring to the fortune-telling cards, not the tropical plant. And if handed a piece of lotus I might try to smoke it before I thought of eating it.
But if you slice these exotic vegetables, and you cook them in oil, and you generally make them look like potato chips, I'll scarf them up.
I made this little discovery about my relationship with unfamiliar vegetables the other day after polishing off a bag of Terra Chips. Terra Chips are unusual-looking chips made from weird vegetables. Some of the chips are red (taro colored with beet juice), some are orange (sweet potato) and some (lotus) look like either a dried-out slice of tomato or a church window.
They had a good flavor, although I thought they needed more salt to be considered a serious snack.
When I called up the folks who make them, Dana Alexander Inc. in New York, to get the story behind the chip, I found out they were pleased, indeed proud, of how little salt, or as they say sodium, they put on their chips.
"We put only 70 milligrams of sodium on ours chips, whereas most potato chips have 170 or 180 milligrams," said Jack Acree, spokesman for Terra Chips.
I was able to immediately verify these comparisons because sitting on my desk were two bags of chips, one containing the weird chips and the other containing the standard-issue potato chips made by Snyder's of Hanover (Pa.).
By reading the nutritional information on the backs of the packages I saw that the potato chips did have more salt, but they also had more vitamin C. The vegetable chips and plain old potato chips had the same amount of calories -- 150 -- per 1-ounce serving. As for fat, the main enemy of cardiovascular police, potato chips had a little more. The potato chips, cooked in cottonseed oil, had 60 percent of their calories coming from fat. The Terra Chips, cooked in a combination of canola and peanut oils, had 49 percent of calories coming from fat.
My eating experience has taught me that any chip tasty enough to qualify as a snack usually fails as a health food. When I passed this observation on Acree, he paused and said that rather than calling Terra Chips a health food, he called it a "healthier chip."
Having skirted the matter of whether or not chip eaters see themselves as grabbing a handful of nutrients, I moved on to other issues, like which chip came from which exotic vegetable.
Acree gave me a rundown. There were two taro chips, a white one flecked with red, and an all-red one. The big red chip is colored with beet juice. The butata, which is a Spanish sweet potato, is the white chip, which sometimes has a ring around its edge. The ring is the butata skin.
The bright yellow chip is yucca. The orange chip is yam. The lotus or lily root was the one that looked like a church window. The parsnip is golden brown, sometimes cut into strip chips, other times made into button chips. And the celeriac, which when pronounced correctly sounds like a back ailment, is actually a root vegetable. Its chip is small, brown and bubbly.
The chips are the creations of two New York caterers, Dana Sinkler and Alexander Dzieduszycki, who began making them by stirring the sliced vegetables in a wok. They served them as appetizers at fancy parties. Much to their chagrin, the caterers discovered that their customers were often more interested in the colorful appetizers, which they had whipped up in a few minutes, than in the entree, which they had worked on for hours.
So last August Sinkler and Dzieduszycki stopped being caterers and became chippers. The chips, which come in a shiny foil bag, in part to protect them from fluorescent lights, are sold in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Honolulu, Miami, Richmond and Baltimore. (I found them at Cross Street Cheese in the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore, downtown at Morton's on Eager Street and in the Old World Gourmet at Belvedere Square Market off Northern Parkway.)
An 8-ounce bag sells for between $5 and $6. Which proves that when you make a parsnip pretty, you also make it pricey.