ST. CHARLES, MO—Print-shop manager and potato-chip connoisseur Nathan Sterken, 26, was surprised by the "exceptionally rich mid-palate notes of onion" and "wonderfully creamy but sour overtones" in a fresh Big Grab bag of Lay's Sour Cream & Onion potato chips he purchased from a local deli Tuesday.
"I find myself enticed by the playful salty-sweet flavors of this blend," said Sterken, who first developed a taste for potato chips during his four years working at a St. Charles–area 7-Eleven convenience store. "The flavors are robust without overpowering the fragile potato, and they mature into a rich, truly unexpected canola-oil finish."
Sterken, who said he used to consider this particular domestic label "whimsical but insubstantial," held a chip up to the light to appreciate its green-flecked coloring and tasted several samples in order to identify the snack's sophisticated flavors. He later decided to pair it with a pastrami sandwich and bottle of Yoo-hoo.
Although Sterken finds original Ruffles more than adequate for a table chip, his refined palate allows him to appreciate more exotic flavors such as vinegar, salt, bacon, and "flamin' hot."
In November, the snack aficionado made what he called his "most significant chip discovery in years." While visiting his family in Jefferson City, MO, Sterken found an interesting batch of chips "with an almost mesquite bouquet, reminiscent of a summer cookout."
"They had such a pervasive smokiness, I had to cleanse my palate with a Baked Lay before I could open another bag," Sterken said.
According to Sterken, a fine chip can be worth months of searching, or years of waiting.
"On my birthday last year, I opened a delightful three-year-old bag of Doritos that I'd been saving, which had a ranch essence—but with cooler undertones," Sterken said. "I'll say it again, 2003 was a great year for Doritos."
But the chip enthusiast hasn't always been so discerning. After being turned on to chips by friends in college, Sterken said he "used to cram them in, two or three at a time, without any appreciation for their tactile qualities or gentle nuances. Back in those days I couldn't tell the difference between a Walker and a Wise. I thought it was all about boldness and crunch."
Since then, Sterken has taken great pains to educate himself on many chip varietals, often importing his favorites by the case from other states. "There's a subtle yet tangible difference between a bag of Ruffles from a West Virginia producer and one from a California producer," Sterken said.
The innocent diversion became a full-blown obsession after Sterken took a year off from college to tour the potato country in Idaho's Cache Valley.
"You can eat the potatoes right off the root there," Sterken said. "It's breathtaking."
Although he admits to spending a little too much time and money in the chip aisle these days, Sterken said that he is not "one of those holier-than-thou chip snobs." For the past year, he has been hosting monthly chip-tasting parties at his apartment to introduce "new finds and old favorites to all of [his] friends."
"Nate's always trying to get me to try something with jalapeño or ridges, and sometimes it can be intimidating," said Judith Reeger, Sterken's next-door neighbor, who credits Sterken with exposing her to blue-corn tortilla chips. "I'm ashamed to say I usually just buy whatever is cheap and in the nicest looking bag."
Sterken insists that with an open mind, and a few of his easy-to-follow tips, almost anyone can enjoy potato chips.
"If you're having a small lunch, you'll want to go with a medium-bodied Sun Chip that won't steal focus, whereas most hamburgers are going to require a more robust Frito," said Sterken, who suggests allowing all corn-based chips to breathe in a shallow bowl before enjoying.
Although Sterken said he believes most brands have their own relative merits, he refuses to expose his delicate palate to Pringles, calling it "unnatural" for a chip to be served in a tube.