Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Inventing traditions in potato chips

Some years ago, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Rainger published a collection of essays on “The Invention of Tradition,” on the ways things we think of as timeless, local, and spontaneous are often carefully planned and manufactured. Hugh Trevor-Roper had a brilliant piece on how Scottish highlands culture was largely manufactured in the eighteenth and nineteenth centurieshow the kilt was invented by a prudish English factory owner determined to clothe his Scottish workers, how clan tartans came from a catalog, etc..

This came to mind when we bought some “authentic Hawaiian potato chips,” which the bag describes as a local favorite, made the old-fashioned way, etc.. Now, when you buy something that is supposedly authentic to a place, you expect something distinctive, maybe a little unusual or exotic, exempt from the tides of time and caprices of globalization. In short, something that you haven’t had before.

I opened the bag up, expecting them to be mango flavored, or have bits of guava essence, or something.

They taste exactly like Cape Cod Potato Chips. Both claim to be local forms of the potato chip; and both are kettle cooked. This cannot be a coincidence. Some odd calculus of potato chip marketing now declares that

kettle cooked = local

I have no clear idea of what “kettle cooked” means, except that it’s different than the Evil Chemical Process that Large Faceless Corporations use to cook their impersonal, placeless starchy signifiers of global capitalism. They must be opposites, after all. One is traditional in both Hawaii and Cape Cod.

Perhaps whalers or missionaries brought kettle cooking. And someone would have had to bring potatoes, come to think of it. If memory serves, on Cook’s third voyage the crew trades iron and other goods for yams, not spuds.

And maybe in some part of the world, there’s a traditional potato chip that’s perfectly round, and comes in a little tube.

6 Comments

  1. My friend and would like to invent a different kind of chip how would we go about making that happen.

  2. Rolande Armstrong

    November 2, 2003 at 8:59 pm

    Hello, I have a new kind of potato chips that I
    would be a good one. I have talked to some of my
    friends and I have thought about it for a couple
    years now. If you are interested please contact
    me.
    Rolande Armstrong
    Site 13 Box 14
    Sudbury, Ontario P3E 4N1
    Phone: (705) 523-5498

    Thanks again

  3. alexis l. johnson

    January 26, 2004 at 9:41 am

    how was the potato chip invented. and is there a factori so I can see it

  4. yall suck ur talkin bout chips get a life come on

  5. oh! i know i recipe for a chip substitute! bake kale instead of potatoes i taste the smae and we dont suck we rule we do have a life

  6. sry it taste the same

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