Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sucking....and Pretending to Suck

I always check out new potato chips brands as I spot them. It's an area of intense interest for me; I've tried most brands available in this country. In fact, I once hosted perhaps the most ambitious potato chip tasting ever, where we tasted through dozens of great brands (in the aftermath, I noticed that each guest had consumed an average of one entire gallon of bottled water). (These are unquestionaly the best)

It's seldom money wasted, because most upstart chip companies make damned good chips. It's not a business people enter unless they're died-in-the-wool spud-ficionados. True believers.

But today I bought some "Billy Goat" chips, which come in an appealing little brown paper sack.
Looked great, but the potatoes were abysmal - every other chip had a big black/purple splotch undetected by their quality control - the slicing was thinner than Lays, and the oil had no character. My tiny 3oz sack of chips cost a big $4, and the chips were utterly blah. A "5" on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from 1 to 10. These were way, way, worse than the most commercial supermarket brands.

I was trying to figure out what I can learn from this experience when I noticed, on the back of the bag, a long list of things these chips are not:
No preservatives
No Trans Fats
Kosher Certified

....and, presumably, no animal testing, no radioactive fallout, and entirely peanut-free.

When a product's defined by what it's not (and the manufacturer's plainly reaching to come up with stuff to list), it's safe to say the product isn't primarily intended to wow.

I once had a heated argument with a baker of gluten-free desserts. I pointed out that she was essentially putting down her own products by defining them by what they're not...when, actually, they're estimably delicious even for those unaffected by the gluten fad. She couldn't even input my point. Her products were gluten-free, period. That was always her intention, and that's that. Any deliciousness was purely corollary.

This brings me to a seldom-discussed chowhounding phenomena. Every once in a while, someone opens a restaurant parroting someone's disgusting, soulless formula, but the food, almost by accident, is surprisingly good. A plastic, antiseptic, shiny, bullshit place turns out to actually be delicious. The proprietors never imagined marketing on the basis of quality. It never would have occurred to them; that's not their business model. So they pretend to suck, hoping to horn in on the success previous sucky businesses have reaped.

It's extremely easy to overlook such places because we assume imitators of suckiness must stem from the lowest circle of hell in the chowhounding pantheon. What, after all, is more pathetic than a Kenny G clone?

But a Kenny G clone can, I'm forced to admit, move you in spite of himself. And a cookie engineered to be nothing more than gluten-free can wail. And a plastic shiny chain wannabe can be awesome (my fave of the moment: Potatopia).

Anything can be great. But, alas, so can anything - even fried slices of yummy potatoes - suck. It's all in the iteration.

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