Generally speaking, being British (and, more specifically, English) is rubbish. Fact is, everyone hates us. Not a great surprise give that, at one time or another, the British Empire has pissed in the dinner of every nation on the planet, be it America, Australia, India, Africa, Ireland… well, we could go on, but bottom line is; we’re the most hated race on Earth. With the exception of our shining ambassadors of British culture such as Geri Halliwell, Mr Bean and Benny Hill, there can be few foreigners who wouldn’t consider the world a better place without us. But, frankly, the joke’s on them. Britain has something that they’ll never have. Something that sets us apart from Johnny Foreigner.  It’s something that he’ll never understand, nor get his hands on: the potato crisp.

Oh sure, you get your so-called “chips” abroad, but in America you’re lucky to find any flavour other than “Salted” or “BBQ” or Doritos, while on the continent it’s usually just “Salted” or “Paprika”. The British crisp comes in every flavour imaginable, from mustard to chilli to pickled onion to hedgehog, to every shape, from round, to square, to rippled, to monster shaped. The diversity of the British crisp is, frankly, “crisp-tonishing”.

Be that as it may, the crisp was invented in 1853 by an American Indian chef, George Crum (not a made up name, sadly – though it’s a miracle that crisps ended up not being called “crums”), who worked at a hotel in New York State. Crum was catering for the culinary demands of a difficult diner, railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. The train dude was proving a difficult customer, complaining repeatedly that his French fries were cut too thick. By way of a sort of joke, the exasperated Crum chopped Vanderbilt’s potatoes into wafer-thin slices, and fried them. But what had been intended as a cuss proved too tasty to resist, and Vanderbilt gave them the thumbs up. Soon, word of this new culinary sensation had begun to spread. Albeit slowly.

In 1920 Londoner Frank Smith caught wind of this new way of eating potatoes – which had been introduced into the UK seven years earlier, by a man named “Carter”, who’d encountered them in France – and set up a business in his garage manufacturing them. His wife peeled, sliced and fried, while Smith would package in greaseproof bag, before setting off in his cart to sell the snack around London. Within a year Smiths Crisps was forced to move to larger premises, and employ additional staff. To cater for customers with a savoury tongue, Smith gave them the option of adding salt to their crisps, including a small twist of blue paper with his snacks. To cater for customers with an unsavoury tongue, Smith toyed with including a twist of dried and shredded dog foreskin, dipped in aspic, but ultimately rejected the plan…

North of London, competition came in the shape of Walker’s Crisps. Henry Walker, a successful pork butcher, faced bankruptcy with the introduction of wartime rationing. Short of selling dead cats and rats and insects, Walker’s was forced to change track, and introduce other, additional streams of revenue. Then managing director R.E. Gerrard considered moving into ice cream (no, no - not to live in, but to sell), though he had concerns over hygiene, namely that meat and dairy products do not mix well within the same factory premises (though Walls would probably disagree; “Would you like a sausage in that cornet, son?”). And so it was to the un-rationed potato that the company turned, and to great success; when meat was de-rationed in 1954, Walkers kept its focus on crisps.

In 1947, Baker William Alexander had had a similar plan to capitalise on the crisp craze, and founded Golden Wonder. The company was the first to introduce “Ready Salted” crisps, that didn’t require the customer to add his own flavour. Later, Golden Wonder pioneered other flavours, starting in 1962 with Cheese And Onion, and further diversifying a decade aftwards with the tampon-shaped cheesy Wotsit, the most orange of all the snacks.

Nowadays, Golden Wonder is relatively diminished concern from the high point of the 70s and 80s, when it ruled the UK snack scene alongside Smiths. And Smiths itself is all but gone, bought out by the all-conquering Walkers (or, as Walkers would have it, “joined forces” with them), which is now a subsidiary of the Pepsico behemoth. Walkers’ improbable success has been built upon the back of aggressive brand purchasing, and introducing new flavours based upon soccer stars, such as the Michael Owen-endorsed “Cheese & Owen”, and self-explanatory “Assault And VinnieJones”. 

But the fact remains that the British love their crisps. Crisps make up more than 60% of the UK savoury snack market. 8,500 MILLION packets are sold in the UK every year. It’s because of the variety that no crisp-eating experience is alike. Whether your preference is for the “death-breath” specials, such as the Pickled Onion Monster Munch (like Wotsits, strictly speaking more a “corn snack” than a crisp), Walkers Worcester Sauce, or Sour Cream And Onion Pringles, or the more gourmet crisp, such as KP’s Brannigans brand, which features Roast Beef And Mustard, Ham And Pickle, and the hard-to-find Minted Lamb, and Chicken And Stuffing flavours, there’s a crisp for every pallette.

Of course, not every crisp concept is a success. We lament the passing of Beefy Monster Munch, Smiths’ Sky-Divers – a corn snack shaped like a little guy with a giant, swollen cranium – and Smiths’ “shouldn’t-work-but-it-does” Bovril flavour. However, we’re more than happy to see the passing of a particular brand of short-lived, fizzy fruit-flavour crisps (what WERE they thinking?), as well as “Puffs”, and Golden Wonder’s eye-watering tomato sauce flavour. 

For the record, Bubblegun’s all-time favourite flavours are Golden Wonder’s Ready Salted, and Sausage And Tomato, the aforementioned Brannigan’s Minted Lamb, Walker’s Beef And Onion, and Tesco’s own in-house Marmite flavour. We’re also missing the long-gone Smiths, and their benchmark Cheese And Onion and Salt And Vinegar, and their abortive attempt to introduce flavoured Salt And Shake crisps. Even so, Smith’s standard Ready Salted always tasted like someone had pulled their trousers down, and sat in the vat on a hot summer’s afternoon.

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1.  In the 1980s, ads for Square Crisps risked inciting religious fury by showing TV funnyman Lenny Henry walking on what?

2. An average bag of crisps contains what amount of the recommended daily intake of salt?

3.  When Walkers signed Gary Lineker to promote its crisps, to what did it change the name of its Salt And Vinegar flavour?

4. Quavers were launched by Smiths in what year?

5. Which of these brands is not a subsidiary of KP?


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