Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Snacks: Another Crossroads for the Crisp

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Snacks: Another Crossroads for the Crisp

Article excerpt

In 1970 the architectural critic Peter Reyner Banham wrote a celebrated New Society essay called "The Crisp at the Crossroads". A champion of the serious study of consumer ephemera, Banham gave the humble crisp the sort of attention his colleagues reserved for buildings by Le Corbusier. His theme was the transformation of the crisp from marginal pub fodder into mass-marketed, multi-flavoured snack.

Now the crisp is at another crossroads. In one direction we see the long-term decline of the bog-standard crisp. Golden Wonder has gone bust and had to be rescued by the Northern Irish firm Tayto. Crisps will soon be banned from school vending machines in the latest instance of the Jamie Oliver effect. Gary Lineker is back as the nice guy in adverts, telling us about the reduction of salt and saturated fat in Walkers crisps. In another direction, we see the rise of "premium" crisps such as Walkers Sensations, Burts and Kettle Chips.

The history of the crisp is, as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim might have written, a strangely neglected topic. According to Banham, before the 1960s the crisp had the same purpose as a Babycham: respectable women could ask for a bag of crisps instead of a beer in a pub, thus remaining ladylike without dropping out of a round.

Then Golden Wonder became more market-savvy and ended the 40-year dominance of Smith's Crisps. Golden Wonder introduced ready-salted crisps in direct competition to Smith's, whose packets had little blue twists of greaseproof paper full of salt. This led to the "flavour wars", with Smith's and Golden Wonder battling to produce new varieties such as cheese and onion, salt and vinegar and smoky bacon.

In the year Banham wrote his essay, Golden Wonder invented the Cheesy Wotsit, thus paving the way for what the industry calls "mimics": crisps made of powdered potato, maize or starch, re-formed into shapes such as hoops, monsters or Space Invaders. …

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