Thought you already knew how to eat crisps? Think again. Where do you stand on puffs, gourmet flavours and posh thick chips? And have you ever had a mixed-crisp salad?
Crunch, crunch, crunch, rustle, crunch, crunch, scrunch ... Sorry, *licks fingers, wipes hands on jeans*, where were we? Oh, yeah, how to eat crisps.
That's right, the series that tries to establish informal rules of good conduct for the nation's favourite foods, is, this month, biting down on one of the biggies: the potato crisp. Given that we consume 10bn packets of crisps and savoury snacks each year, it is one of the few foods that you could genuinely describe as a national obsession.
You know the drill below the line. Don't get too chippy, fry off the handle or use too much salty language. And if you are going to give it out, make sure your argument is the real McCoy's.
What is a crisp?
We all know what a crisp is. It's all those things on the, erm, crisp aisle in the supermarket, right? But is it? Obviously, there is no disputing that a bag of Walkers cheese and onion contains crisps: potatoes, thinly sliced, deep fried and seasoned (even if Walkers does, famously, colour-code its crisps - blue for cheese and onion, WTF?! - in a way that makes you wonder if anybody in Beaumont Leys has the first clue about crisp culture).
But what about Doritos-style corn chips? Or Wotsits and Monster Munch, both made from corn and baked, not fried? Are they crisps or "puffs"? And what of a product that, because it has rice flour and wheat mixed into its dehydrated potato base, seems to bring a lot of people out in a fit of indignation - Pringles?
It's a minefield, isn't it? So I devised a scientifically rigorous checklist to sort crisps from non-crisps:
• Are they sold in the crisp aisle?
• Would you eat them in the pub?
• Would you ever think about putting them in a sandwich?
To qualify, crisps have to meet all three criteria. For instance, they are sold in the crisp aisle and eaten in pubs, but you would never put Mini Cheddars or Scampi Fries in a sandwich ... would you? Tell me you wouldn't. See? It is completely failsafe. Unless you are a stone-cold weirdo.
Good and bad flavours
We live in a crazy world, the rise of the gourmet crisp being but one egregious example. Like many of you, I was initially dazzled by the fact that Burts, Pipers and Tyrrells could produce crisps that actually tasted, often in a remarkably true way, of their advertised flavourings. But that novelty quickly wore off. Why? Because if I want a roast dinner, I'll make one. If I want a salmon-and-cream-cheese bagel, likewise. I don't need someone to mimic that in a packet of crisps.
In fact, it runs counter to crisps' whole appeal. They are brilliant precisely because they deliver wholly alien, artificial flavours at a wholly unnatural intensity. That is what we want: the hit, the thrill, the instant high of concentrated, industrialised otherworldly flavour-esque-flavour. I don't want to taste actual cheese or prawns in a packet of crisps, I want their bizarre, electrifying analogue.
These days, even crisp manufacturers are pushing the - cough! - provenance of their ingredients. Wotsits, we are reassured, are coloured with paprika and made with real cheese. Walkers cheese and onion are made with Somerset cheddar. Me? I don't care about any of that. In fact, I actively prefer the mysterious, futuristic ingredients listed on Doritos - disodium 5'-ribonucleotide, anyone? - as part of its tangy cheese flavour. Not that I want to be looking at the ingredients at all. They are crisps for Christ's sake. Is that crisp making my mouth explode? Yes. Then, what more do I need to know?
I have a similar issue with sophisticated and/or ludicrous flavour combinations in the vein of Sensations. There is a place for Thai sweet chilli (well, maybe not), aromatic chicken with thyme, peri peri, or mozzarella and pesto, but that is not in a packet of crisps. I don't want complexity. I don't want to have to think about how the layers of flavour "work". Crisps need to deliver simple, powerful flavours: saltiness, something sharp and piquant, something incredibly umami and savoury, or preferably a combination of all three. That is why tangy cheese Doritos, as Tim Hayward once wrote on this very blog, are the crack cocaine of savoury snacks.
Beyond that, everything else is irrelevant. That is why salt and vinegar and cheese and onion are the undisputed kings of crisp, and why, of the posh crisps, Tyrrells salt and cider vinegar are clearly the most successful creation. It is also why the following are all classics:
• Doritos, tangy cheese flavour, of course
• Cheese and ham Toasties, Director's Cut range. Rare, but profoundly tasty
• Pickled onion Monster Munch
• Salt and vinegar Pringles. Pure power
• Seabrook prawn cocktail
• Salt and vinegar Chipsticks
• The European paprika crisps you had on holiday
• Salt and vinegar French Fries
You will notice there are no meat flavours in there because they are universally disgusting. Eating any flavour on the spectrum from roast chicken to roast beef is like sucking a stock cube. Yes, they are intense, but compared to the sprightly, zingy flavours above, they have a dense, muggy intensity. A slog. Spicy tomato is a similar crisp-tastrophy.
As for good old ready salted - reliable, steady ready salted; humble and dignified, traditional ready salted - I can say only this: have you completely given up on life? Seriously. Ready salted. Why bother? It is not worth the calories.
Issues of texture
What do you want out of a crisp? Well, it depends to a large degree on how you eat them - at speed, walking back from the corner shop, as hastily stuffed-in fuel (a waste); or at a more leisurely pace, where you attempt to squeeze as much pleasure out of the process as you can (the right way).
If you are eating them in the right way, you are looking for crisp that boasts a clean snap and crunch, enough resistance that you can suck hard initially to get that full hit of flavour, and, finally, a smooth, swift melting away (at all three, Pringles excel). You might think that rules puffed snacks out of any connoisseur's diet, but, obviously, taste can trump texture. A standard bag of Walkers, for all that it hits the mark texturally, will never beat Wotsits. Whereas the ineffectually lightweight (both in taste and body) Quavers are very much a division two crisp.
Like gussied-up flavours, the rise of extra-thick premium crisps is an appalling trend. Kettle Chips (overly thick, overcooked, weirdly seasoned) started it, while McCoy's and its ridged brethren took it to almost inedible extremes. I don't want to a) end up hospitalised with jagged shards of fried potato in my soft palate; b) spend most of the packet picking great claggy lumps of crisp out of my molars; c) have to drink a litre of liquid to get the bag down.
If you eat McCoy's "man crisps", it's because you are insecure about your manhood. Fine. Go ahead. But the real crisp heads know Seabrook nailed the ridged crisp years ago. Everything since is just marketing bull for gullible idiots.
Consumption and sharing
Crisps should be eaten straight from the packet. The only time they should be dispensed into a bowl is at home, if you have guests.
If you are mobile, it is fine to offer someone a crisp from the packet. However, if you are stationary, in the pub, the packet must be ripped open and laid flat so that it is clear that these are sharing crisps.
When eating solo, feel free to constantly lick your salty fingers clean. When sharing crisps, it would obviously be totally boakingly unhygienic.
The crushed debris of tiny crisp shards and flavour-powder at the bottom of the packet belongs to whoever paid for the crisps. It is far too precious to share.
In public, where you might not bin it immediately, fold the packet lengthways into a narrow strip and then tie a knot in it. People who fold the packet into a tight, precise triangle are psychopaths.
I am agnostic about adding crisps to a sandwich. I have tried it and enjoyed it but feel that I have yet to fully realise its potential. In much the same way as I have only dipped into jazz and bondage (not at the same time).
I am, however, firmly against crisps served on the side of a sandwich, generally with some tokenistic frisée salad in a garden centre cafe. It is awkward (which one do you eat first, do you alternate, what if the flavours clash?) and ugly (in naked daylight, crisps on a white plate look anaemic).
Have you ever tried a mixed-crisp salad? Possibly the ultimate party food, and one that works with pretty much any combination of crisps/savoury snacks. For ultimate pleasure, combine ready salted Hula Hoops, salted peanuts, salt and vinegar crisps and Wotsits in a large bowl. Seriously, it's the nuts. If you haven't eaten a peanut in a Hula Hoop jacket, you haven't lived.
Root vegetable crisps ...
... are not crisps. Sorry. Oh, and for the record, I would rather eat a carpet slipper than 99% of the baked or healthy crisp-not-crisp alternatives on the market.
When to eat
Disregarding children who - from the school bus in the morning to smuggled packets under the duvet - are always eating crisps, there are two major adult "occasions" when crisps come into play. In the car - when you need something to see you through a reasonably long journey, but don't want to give a penny more than is strictly necessary to Moto - and in the pub. If you find yourself augmenting your lunch with a packet of crisps (unnecessary gilding), grabbing a bag at 3pm, or rooting through a multipack as Newsnight comes on, then it is probably time to get on those scales and have a stern word with yourself.
A cold drink is imperative. Beer* or cola, possibly lemonade. Wine is more of a pretzel drink. Tea or coffee are vile.
*A pale, easy-drinking beer. You don't want to drink a £5 bottle of Nøgne Ø IPA with cheese and onion stuck in your teeth.
So, crisps - how do you eat yours?
• Follow Tony Naylor on Twitter: @naylor_tony
Crisps should be eaten straight from the packet Photograph: Alamy