Don't call them 'chips'!

Our view: A possible explanation for Pringles' universal appeal

April 09, 2011

Pringles — the little crisps that could — were sold this week by Procter & Gamble to Diamond Foods for a whopping $2.35 billion. Talk about a success story.

When Pringles arrived on the snacking scene some 50 years ago, they were scorned. Pringles aspired to be called potato chips, but they did not have the right stuff to garner that title. Instead, because of their makeup — 42 per cent potato content — they had to settle for the lesser label "potato crisps." In their early years, these crisps, made of dehydrated potato flakes that have been rolled and fried, tasted like cardboard.

But they did not give up. Helped by the engineers of Procter & Gamble, Pringles, like a late-bloomer, moved to the fore. By the late 1990s, they had become a $1 billion brand. They were a "with-it" snack, even scoring an appearance on "Ally McBeal," the "must watch" Fox television series that ran from 1997 to 2002.

A 1980s makeover helped. The renovated Pringle still did not taste like a potato chip, but it did taste better than cardboard. Part of its appeal was that it rarely went stale. Its packaging, the unique foil-lined can with a resealable lid, was largely responsible for that.

Another factor was that Pringles never really tasted "fresh," either. One of the reasons the snack came into this world, a Procter & Gamble archivist told The New York Times, was that the company wanted a product that was almost imperishable, and — unlike conventional potato chips — could be shipped in the company's massive distribution network without worries of fading flavor.

A can of Pringles, like a fine Cabernet Sauvignon, could be put down in your cellar, then retrieved years later to be enjoyed. I doubt that many snackers "cellared" their Pringles, but it was possible.

The container, about the size of can of tennis balls, also figured in Pringles' climb to glory. It allowed the individual, saddle-shaped Pringles to be neatly stacked, avoiding the problem of broken pieces that plagued its highfalutin competitors, potato chips in bags. Indeed, the creator of the can, chemist Fredric Baur, was so fond of his invention that when he died in 2008, his family honored his request to bury his ashes in a Pringles can.

Like many Americans, I consider myself a friend of potato chips. I have made them at home, frying them in oil and butter using a recipe pulled from "The French Laundry Cookbook," written by the celebrated chef Thomas Keller. This endeavor produced both remarkable potato chips and an unbelievable kitchen mess. Being weak of will and round at my middle, I steer clear of the potato chip aisle in the grocery, except when I am on vacation. Then, there is something about the combination of the sea air and absence of a bathroom scale that gives me the munchies.

Recently, I was bobbing around in a sailboat with friends when, at cocktail time, they produced a can of Pringles. My usual chip of choice is Grandma Utz, hunks of potato cooked (don't tell the cardiologist) in lard. But feeling hospitable and hungry, I dug into the Pringles. They were surprisingly appealing, even if there were mere "crisps." I ate one, then another, and another. I considered their allure. The captain of the ship explained that they were the perfect plastic food for sailing: no sogginess, no breakage, no wasted space. All this was true — yet Pringles seemed to possess some additional deep, powerful magnetism.

I could not put my finger on it until this week, when, after the sale of Pringles was announced, I began reading about the saddle shape of the crisp. It is called a hyperbolic paraboloid. There are some scientists who speculate that the universe is a hyperbolic paraboloid. That's right: Creation itself may be shaped like a Pringle.

Of course, there are also scientists who speculate that the universe is shaped like a doughnut. But given the success of this edible hyperbolic paraboloid, my money is on the Pringle. How else could we explain its universal appeal?

Rob Kasper

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