By Betty Carpick
In the junk food realm, Old Dutch potato chips are my default comfort food. The thin, crunchy, salty, greasy deliciousness of these chips have been a favourite since I was a kid in northern Manitoba. At the arena, community club, curling rink, grocery store, and on the train that connected us to the south, the four Old Dutch flavours of the 1960s—plain, ripple, onion and garlic, and barbeque—whispered to me from neat wall-mounted shingle style displays.
It was exquisite to bite into a treat that that inspired my palate with its futuristic texture. Once in a while, you’d find brown chips or chips with green edges in a package. I didn’t care. While I understood the beauty of abundant patches of sun-ripened berries and knew how to pick clean without the leaves, stems, unripe berries, and tiny worms, a bag of chips held the promise of pleasant feelings without much work. The fact that bags of potato chips made their way intact over 1,000 kms from Winnipeg to an isolated community surrounded by water and granite was good enough for me.
Recipes for fried potato slices can be found in several nineteenth century cookbooks. In the 1850s, Native American cooks and siblings Kate Wicks and George Speck refined the process of frying and salting very thin slices of potatoes and popularized them at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Before they became popular, it was a bit of scandal to be seen out in public munching on Saratoga chips or potato crunches from paper cones. However, it wasn’t long before potato chips were produced for sale in grocery stores.
In 1934, Old Dutch Products Co. was founded in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Twenty years later they opened a potato chip manufacturing plant in Winnipeg. Southwestern Manitoba’s soil and climatic conditions made it one of the most productive places in Canada to grow potatoes. New flavours and new products were eventually introduced to appeal to regional and generational preferences—sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, all dressed, ketchup, baked, reduced salt, sea salt, jalapeno and cheddar, and more.
Part of the insidiousness of junk foods, with their convenient purity, consistency, and longer shelf life, meant that remote and rural communities were infiltrated. It became easy for people to eat unhealthy food and the snack attack was inevitably normalized.
When I moved to southern Ontario in the 1980s, I missed my family and friends, I missed Manitoba, and I missed the comfort of eating Old Dutch chips. Once, on a return flight from Winnipeg, I watched a couple of passengers stuff boxes of Old Dutch chips into the overhead compartment. I felt remorseful that I hadn’t had the wherewithal to do the same.
Comfort foods are very personal dopamine fixes. As much as I still enjoy indulging in a few potato chips, the one food that I really crave is a traditional spring ritual for my family, a delicacy that I haven’t enjoyed in over 30 years: the tender, salty, greasy deliciousness of brined wild muskrat cooked over an open fire.