Clam chowder, roast beef, beets, asparagus, and a cup of coffee all in a single pill dispensed from the spout of a faceless machine embedded in a city wall. The man-from-the-past took this crazy tablet-of-the-future and was surprised to feel it slide down his throat just as he remembered food did in “the good ol’ days.” The scene is from Just Imagine (1930), a movie that eagerly predicted the future of 1980 from the Prohibition era and explored some of our present-day concerns about the characterlessness that often comes with commodification. We share the man’s shock at the fact that all the tastes and textures of a well-balanced meal – along with the labor of a kitchen staff, the culinary traditions tied to specific places and histories, the foods that get their essence from boiling water and tenderizers – can be unified in hardened gel with an unknown expiration date.
The condensation and distribution of food that Just Imagine foresaw is today not in the form of a pill dispensed from an anonymous contraption but rather on the surface area of a potato chip available in any given grocery store or well-stocked vending machine. In 2013, Lay’s launched an online contest in the U.S. called “Do Us a Flavor,” which asked Americans to propose chip flavors based on specific regional tastes and then to vote for which flavors they would like to see in production. The contest was premised the belief that the potato chip can be understood as a blank canvas; no proposal would be denied a spot in the voting pool.
The results were not timid. Californians suggested pho and peach sangria, while Tennesseans dreamed up flavors like rabbit and squirrel stew and smoked brisket. Each pocket of America’s regional cuisines was represented on the website, and each pocket of America’s people voted.
The more popular suggestions were realized as full dishes in-house by expert chefs, translated by the seasoning department, and mass-produced by the network of 26 Lay’s factories scattered across America. “A country full of flavor is full of yummy chip ideas,” the Lay’s website claims, and so America’s flavors are converted into paper-thin snacks and cross-pollinated like so many flowers.
Perhaps this practice could lead to the establishment of a network of flavors previously hidden in isolated moments and secretive diners. Lay’s has held the competition annually since 2013 and will no doubt fulfill increasingly challenging requests as flavors traditionally assigned to chips are forgotten. Perhaps the birthplaces of flavors will also escape our memory, along with their original appearances and methods of presentation. A variety of traditional flavors and textures have similarly been dissociated by pie-flavored gum and bacon-flavored soda. Could the first stage of a grand culinary erasure already be in effect?
Dumped out of their labeled bags into a party bowl, the chips are as visibly indiscernible as the featureless, placeless food pills of yesteryear’s future. Yet their tastes – from every corner of America to the Internet to the factories and back to every back – reveal traceable origins and depths much heavier than themselves.