Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The crisp at the crossroads

In 1970 the architectural critic 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.

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, in 1962, Golden Wonder entered the market, building the largest crisp factory in the world in Widnes, and ending the 40-year dominance of Smith’s Crisps almost overnight. 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. By the end of the 1960s, the crisp market had doubled.

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. Some were aerated, so eating them didn't seem to fill you up. The high percentage of air in any bag led to the belief that they were unfattening, which has since been exposed as a myth.

Now the crisp is at another crossroads. In one direction we see the long-term decline of the bog-standard crisp; in another direction, we see the rise of ‘premium’ crisps such as Burts and Kettle Chips. As Banham pointed out, crisps are a non-food, with little nutritional value, so eating them has to be a theatrical, symbolic act. The posh crisps have this ‘audio-masticatory’ appeal in spades. They are solid and crunchy. Eating them is hard work; they do not melt in the mouth like Quavers or Ringos. Their bags have minimalist designs with restrained colours, and they seem pleasingly crackly.

Posh crisps also carefully target middle-class food obsessions with more exotic ingredients, although much of this is down to adding adjectives - instead of ‘salt and vinegar’ you have ‘sea salt and malt vinegar’, and instead of ‘cheese and onion’ you have ‘mature Cheddar and red onion’.

They don’t fool me.


  1. I have often thought about the sounds of crisps, but not in the interesting way that you have coined it here: "audio-masticatory appeal" is genius.

    Personally, I think good old ready salted walkers crisps sound the best.

  2. The theatricality was there too with the old Smith's crisps and their little paper twist containing the salt. You would untwist the paper, pour in just enough salt, and then ostentatiously shake the bag, with attendant crackling and sifting noises, to ensure that the salt was evenly distributed. Of course, the salt wasn't evenly distributed, but you'd made a song and dance about it, that was the main thing.

  3. I think you're being a little unfair - I'm not aware of any theatricality when I eat crisps, premium or otherwise, and some of the exotic flavours aren't especially exotic but simply different (are parsnips exotic?). More a case of "Diversify or Die" I feel (Tyrells in Herefordshire and farming connection) and the idea of promoting locally produced foods from local ingredients (for local people? they do seem to spreading far and wide so perhaps not).

  4. First of all, since i found it, I always enjoy reading your column.

    Second, as I read it, there is a flaw in the logic here:

    "... crisps are a non-food, with little nutritional value, so eating them has to be a theatrical, symbolic act."

    The inference (marked by "so") is not valid. There can indeed be, and I think there is, partly physiological reasons and partly psychological reasons for eating crisps, without this is anything like a symbolic act.

  5. Thank you all for these thoughtful comments. 'Audio-masticatory' is Reyner Banham's coinage and not mine sadly.

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