My father says he can remember tasting his first potato chip. Think about it: his first potato chip. The revelation shouldn’t take me by surprise considering the way my family waxes nostalgic about everything from my busia’s raisin bread to Suburban brand Almond Smash soda to neighborhood bakeries and long-shuttered restaurants. Still, I was taken aback. His. First. Potato. Chip.
The chip was made by Utz, of course, says Dad—as if there were no other options (and perhaps there weren’t in the 1940s). My father and uncle were kids, around 10 and 11, and spending the summer with their sisters and mother “down the country” picking beans, an annual event for many Polish families in East and South Baltimore. The location changed every summer—Hydes, Havre de Grace or Delta, Pa.—but this year they were in New Windsor or Westminster. Dad and Uncle Cas scrounged up a few pennies, went down to the local grocer who supplied goods for the bean pickers and spent 3 cents on a bag of Utz potato chips. Dad remembers experiencing what we’ve come to cherish in a chip: a translucent bite of salty-crunchy, followed by the pure potato. From that day on, he was hooked.
Utz chips were a special treat for my mother, too. My grandmother would buy a gold canister of chips for Christmas at the Lexington Market stall or a hand-scooped bag from the ladies who ran the small grocery next to the post office on Holabird Avenue in Dundalk. Even my Midwestern husband treasures potato chips and recalls a story similar to my father’s (albeit the baby boomer version) where he and one of his many brothers would collect bottles, cash them in for the deposit and walk to the grocery store that served his town of 714 to buy a bag of potato chips, a rare indulgence for a kid with 11 siblings. These days, only Utz will do for Kevin. “They’re thin, with just the right amount of salt,” he says.
Growing up, there was always a bag of Utz in our house, brought home from my father’s pharmacy. But their familiarity bred junk food boredom. I would have rather had a french fry over a chip any day.
As I’ve matured, I’ve been won over by the simplicity of the chip (possibly this is my husband’s influence). It is potato at its most basic—enhanced, but not overwhelmed, by its dip in the fryer, its dusting of salt. And I won’t argue with the generations of Baltimoreans who have adopted Utz as their hometown chip despite its origins across the border in Hanover, Pa. An Utz chip is one fresh slice of fried potato. No wonder the Natty Boh boy of the Smyth Jewelers billboard campaign is so besotted with the little Utz girl. I’d court her, too, if it meant unlimited access to chips.
Instead, I decide to make the short drive to Hanover to tour the Utz factory. From Hanover’s town center, I see the vintage Utz sign glowing red in the gray sky. The sign turns out to be for the factory outlet where you can buy anything from chocolate-covered potato chips, an addictive mix of sweet and salty, to pretzels shaped like Cinderella’s tiara. The factory lies across the highway, an amalgam of tan brick and smoked glass standing solid among the comings and goings of 18-wheelers. For a good mile, says a man in the outlet parking lot, you can smell potatoes cooking.
I enter the door marked Utz Factory Tours and climb a staircase to the second floor. A small display of old tins and dull silver-colored peeling and frying equipment appears almost hidden under the staircase, and I’m greeted by a disembodied recorded voice telling me that Utz distributes nationally from its nine facilities across the country and is the No. 1 regional brand of snack food in each of its markets (as well as the No. 1 chip in Baltimore). The voice instructs me to enter a set of double doors to begin the self-guided tour.
At first, I’m disappointed. I enter a large empty room with a few photos and paraphernalia and not a single human in sight. Thanks to a video playing in a darkened room, I learn that Utz was founded by Bill and Salie Utz, who started their business from home in 1921 after investing $300 in a peeler, slicer and fryer. Salie made 50 pounds of chips in an hour, and Bill sold them door to door.
When the video switches over to a segment from the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels,” I find out a plethora of cocktail conversation facts—that this part of Pennsylvania is known as “the potato chip belt,” that Snowden potatoes, a low moisture variety, are used to make most chips, that big potatoes are used for big bags of chips and small tubers for small bags (natch), and that it takes 4 pounds of potatoes to make 1 pound of chips.
Utz produces approximately 45 kinds of potato chips that vary in texture, flavor and the amount of fat (for dieters who can’t give up their chips). Plus, the company regularly comes up with new flavors (like the sweet and savory Maui barbecue chip)—many through consumer suggestions via Facebook and phone calls.
Through another set of doors, a long hallway with glass windows looks over the factory floor. I watch as a conveyor high above shakes potatoes down a chute where they spin in a centrifuge and emerge skinned. They travel up and down on belts structured like gentle roller coasters, spinning and shaking and bouncing like pinballs before being sprayed with water and sliced into pale discs. The slices move along the belt, finally tumbling off the edge into hot oil. They emerge oil-slicked and golden. I want to reach out and take a nibble.
Despite the modern machinery and technology, there’s a distinct human element. After cooking, the chips are sorted and then packed into bags by women in hairnets, who flick irregular chips into receptacles like dealing a pack of cards (the chips will later be collected and sold to a company that converts them to animal feed). Occasionally, the folks on the factory floor look up and nod or smile.
I leave the tour area, helping myself to the small bag of chips proffered to each visitor, and as I drive home, I pass Utz truck after Utz truck on the winding route. I think about the folks on the assembly line charged with the mission of making perfect chips. I think of Ken, my father’s Utz deliveryman of 15 years whom I never met, but Dad says was like family to the people who worked at the drugstore. I think about the simple joys my parents and husband got and still get from potato chips.
When my husband arrives home later that evening, I present him with a bag of Original Utz chips, fresh from the factory. He takes a chip and smiles. Then he takes another, reveling in the simple pleasure of potato, salt and oil.
Homemade Potato Chips
4 Russet potatoes
oil for frying (peanut, canola or even lard)
Slice potatoes very thinly on a mandoline. Rinse in cold water and blot dry with paper towels. Heat oil to 350 degrees in a large skillet or deep fryer. Plunge chips into hot oil and remove as soon as they begin to brown and curl. Drain on paper towels. Season with salt. Serve immediately. Yield: One bowl of chips to feed 2 to 4 people.