It was an April afternoon in 1974 on the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore, and students were filing onto the quad for a keg party after returning from spring break. My friends Marc Tohir and Bob Pachavis—high school buddies from the Pittsburgh area—gathered a few of us near Royce Hall, and Bob, brandishing a mysterious box, said, “This is revolutionary, guys, the best chip I’ve ever tasted.” A major-league claim. He slit the box open with a pocket knife, and there were two dozen cylinders of Pringles, a “snack food” I’d never heard of but was willing to try. Deferring to my charitable side, I ate a couple, resisted the urge to spit them out on the grass, and said, “Is that space food,” Bob, “they have that Tang cultural whiff about them.” (Tang, odious powdered orange juice that zoomed in sales to a NASA-crazy public after John Glenn’s Mercury flight in 1962, which everyone had to try, was novel for one or two glasses, and then at home it went into the cupboard, until it was discovered a year later to have maggots feasting on the celebrity astronauts’ alleged drink of choice.)
In subsequent decades, the synthetic, tasteless Pringles have undoubtedly given way to even more horrendous snacks—and I’m not even including the obesity-friendly Big Gulps that 7-Eleven ramped up in the mid-1980s, starting modestly with a 44-oz. drink—but I’m not aware of them. Pringles didn’t have a catchy slogan or TV commercial—I was never partial to Lay’s potato chips, but like others my age, remember the “Bet You Can’t Eat Just One” spots that commanded attention (unlike those really irritating Grey Poupon spots). (“I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing” still reigns as the best advertisement of the 1960s, much better than the still-memorable Madge, hawking Palmolive, telling her customers, “You’re soaking in it!” simply because it was for the gals. My mom fell for it.)
I’m not a snob when it comes to salty snacks, and often eat Snyder’s pretzels (the cheddar cheese “sandwiches”), UTZ bbq or sour-cream “flavored” potato chips, crunchy or puffed Cheetos, Blue Diamond almonds, Planters cashews and peanuts Funyuns, and, it goes without saying, Fritos, along with my dinner. (I’m reminded of my friend Mark, freshman year at college, who never had a burger without a small bag of Fritos. I asked him if it was a Texas tic, he rolled his eyes, and said, “No, man, I just like to have a ‘taste differential’ with my lunch.” I’d never heard that expression, but my wife and I use it to this day, like when she makes a Greek salad and asks what I want for the T.D.)
Just like Coke changed its “recipe” sometime in the 1960s, when it phased out those cool 6.5 oz. glass bottles that contained the not-too-sweet beverage in favor of flip-top cans and ever-increasing sizes of plastic bottles, the snack world has changed, for the worse, but I’ve adapted. When I was a kid nothing beat bags of Wise potato chips (and the owl on the package was tops), the slightly burnt-taste perfect and preferable to its competitors, and the parent company’s Cheez Doodles and Dipsy Doodles hit the spot. And though I liked Ring Dings as a kid, they were an also-ran to Devil Dogs, wrapped in wax paper, that I bought for a nickel at delis in Huntington. I don’t eat ice cream anymore, haven’t for decades, but if pressed, I’d take a Carvel soft cone or Good Humor toasted almond or chocolate éclair bar over any of the “luxury” brands like Dove, Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen Dazs.
A couple of weeks ago, while talking to my son Booker on the phone, his words at one brief point were undecipherable. He was eating Pringles! Upon inquisition (he’s pictured above as a lad in NYC), turned out it’s one of his favorite snacks. We’re like-minded on much—the Red Sox, CIA conspiracy theories, Mr. Ed and Boston Legal re-runs, Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street," every Smiths song, and the Irish writer Paul Murray, for example—but I upbraided him for the (my opinion!) Pringles faux pas.
Take a look at the clues to see what year it is: Air France’s Concorde plane crashes after takeoff, killing over 100 people; Gao Xingjian wins Nobel Literature prize; Ken Livingstone is elected mayor of London; riots break out in Brixton after Derek Bennett is killed by cops; Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is published; film Almost Famous is released, along with Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho; Philip Roth completes his "America trilogy" with The Human Stain; Charlie Kray, Vincent Canby, and John Lindsay die; and the Tate Modern opens in London.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955