What a Bad Idea Tastes Like

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As each country has its own laws, ways of driving, celebrities, and accents, each also has its own chip flavors. In the US, we've got our Sour Cream & Onion, our BBQ, our Salt & Vinegar. And here in the UK, one chip-maker "“ or rather, crisp-maker "“ is hoping that Crispy Duck & Hoisin could be topping the list of Britons' favorite flavors some time soon. Or maybe it'll be Chilli & Chocolate. Or possibly even Cajun Squirrel.

Walkers Crisps, a subsidiary of Frito-Lay and therefore Pepsico (you may notice the similarity in logos between Walkers and Lays), already markets such time-honored flavors as Smoky Bacon, Steak & Onion, Roast Chicken, Prawn Cocktail, Pickled Onion, Marmite, Tomato Ketchup, and Worcester Sauce. But in recent years, and despite the global recession, which normally drives people to low-cost, high-fat food, the cheap crisps market is on the wane. It seems that the market for "healthier" crisps (read: fancier and more expensive) has been growing at a rate of 14 percent annually, muscling out the greasier crisps of their share of the snack pie.

walker-cajun.jpgIn an effort to inject a bit of life into the cheap crisp market, Walkers appealed to the public: Give us your whacky, out-there crisp ideas, they said, and we'll make them happen. Ideas were submitted by people from across Britain, judged by Walkers's panel of experts, and ultimately whittled down to these six finalists: Onion Bhaji, Cajun Squirrel, Builder's Breakfast, Chilli & Chocolate, Fish & Chips, and Crispy Duck & Hoisin. It makes you wonder what the judges rejected.

Of course, I had to try them. All of them. And yes, it was embarrassing to be an American purchasing six packets of crisps in one go from the grocery store, but in the name of journalism, I pressed on.

What follows is an account of what happened next.

Builder's Breakfast: The bag of Builder's Breakfast features a picture of an English breakfast arranged in a little builder's face: A smiley sausage for a mouth, fried eggs for eyes, a tomato nose, bacon ears, and a little swirl of ketchup for hair. That could give some indication of what the crisps tasted like, but then again, in the great tradition of chip flavors bearing no resemblance to what they're supposed to be, it might not. You could just discern a bit of egginess and a bit of tomato tang, but the rest was a bit of a blur. My husband liked them; I wasn't entirely sure what I was eating. But it was a good start to the Tour de Crisp, we both agreed "“ it could only go down hill from here.

Cajun Squirrel: This was my husband's reaction to the Cajun Squirrel: "Pleasant aroma," he says, opening the bag emblazoned with a fluffy grey squirrel peering wistfully from behind a picket fence. Chomp, chomp. His face slowly rearranges itself into a mask of horror. "What is that? I don't like it!"

To clarify, the crisp tastes a bit like a BBQ chip, with an extra bit of something "“ could that be the squirrel? Sure, Walkers promised that no squirrels were harmed in the making of this crisp, but something died in that bag.

onion-y.jpgOnion Bhaji: Oniony. Indiany. Not bad. They seem like something I could definitely get into after a night of drinking, and with gusto, sort of a poor man's late night curry. What I do object to, however, is the illustration on the packaging: A figure in what is intended to be Indian dress with an onion for a head is standing next to a plate of what look like deep-fried Tribbles. These Tribbles look vaguely menacing and the posture of the onion man is difficult to understand "“ is he afraid of the Tribbles? Is he embracing the Tribbles? Is he proud of them? It's a mystery.

Crispy Duck & Hoisin: I had to Google "hoisin" and discovered that it is a sort of sweet soy sauce typically spiced with red pepper. This could be good, however, this particular offering tastes neither of duck nor what I would assume hoisin sauce to taste like, but instead tastes of a perfumed armpit.

Fish & Chips: Fish and chips is a dish absolutely pioneered by the British. A slab of battered cod or some sort of other suitable white fish, a side of fries, and maybe a little mushy peas to accompany the whole mess, and you've got yourself a very fine meal, or at the least, an excellent coating to the stomach in preparation for a night of drinking.

But what you do not have is a crisp flavor. These crisps smell like getting punched in the face with a fish; they taste like grease, or, as my husband claimed, "It takes like when they make the fries in the fish oil."

Chilli & Chocolate: This, our final flavor, tastes like a dusting of Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix on a bad idea. It's not exactly spicy, not exactly chocolatey. The less said about this the better.

***
On the whole, Builder's Breakfast and Onion Bhaji emerged victorious from our very scientific taste test, although I would hasten to mention that all of the flavors uniformly tasted of the inside of a gas station convenience store. Eating them made me feel dirty. But don't just take my word for it: Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker also tried the new flavors and came up with far more clever and colorful ways of describing their badness.

The contest lasts until May 1, at which point Walkers will announce which of these will become part of the regular line up. Anyone out there who's tried these crisps want to weigh in? Any other weird chip flavors that you've tasted?

March 7, 2009 - 4:20am
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