Tater to chip is a quick trip

During a typical shift at this factory, 17.5 tons of spuds become 4 tons of potato chips.

Thanks a picky vacationer for potato chips.

A wealthy guest was eating at a Saratoga, N.Y., resort in the 1850s when he sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen. They were too thick, he complained.

The offended chef threw a new batch of paper-thin potatoes into boiling oil, fried them to a crisp, and - as a final insult - covered them with salt.

Much to the chef's surprise, the diner loved the new creation, soon dubbed "Saratoga Chips." Nearly 150 years later, potato chips aren't just eaten by the rich, and they're not made one panful at a time.

Today, the Cape Cod potato-chip factory in Massachusetts alone uses 135,000 pounds of potatoes daily to make the snack food. That's 11 giant elephants' worth of potatoes - and 80,000 bags of chips!

The first thing you notice when you visit this factory is the smell of fried potatoes. Workers say their clothes smell like French fries when they go home at night.

Potatoes arrive at the factory in big trucks. They come from fields as far away as Florida and Maine. In winter, they are trucked in from refrigerated storehouses.

Potatoes enter the factory on a conveyor belt called "Spudnik." Once inside, a worker checks the size, temperature, and sugar content of each delivery. Potatoes that have spots or are too small are discarded.

Landing with a thump, the potatoes ride an escalator to their temporary home in a storage bin. When potatoes are needed for production, they ride another conveyor belt to their first stop: the peeler.

Into the peeling machine

A machine with brushes and sandpaper-like rollers removes the skins. A worker cuts up overlarge potatoes so they won't get stuck in the machinery later in the process.

Next, the potatoes are sent to one of three production lines. Each line can process as many as six 50-pound batches of chips at a time. A computer weighs each batch to make sure they are all equal. That ensures even cooking.

Now the potatoes fly through a device shaped like a car tire. It's full of razor-sharp blades that slice the potatoes. Special blades make chips with ridges on them.

Each batch of potatoes is dumped into a bathtub-size vat of hot oil called a "kettle fryer." A worker stirs the potatoes with a tool that looks like a garden rake. Another device in the fryer also moves the potatoes back and forth so they cook evenly.

Potatoes are made mostly of water. When the potatoes hit the hot oil, clouds of steam erupt. A lot of the water in the potatoes evaporates. In fact, it takes four pounds of potatoes to make just one pound of potato chips. That's because so much water is lost in the process.

The fryer automatically stops cooking the potatoes after about six minutes. Now the oil has reached a temperature of around 300 degrees F.

With all that hot oil around, the workers can get hot, too. It feels as though someone has left the oven on in the kitchen all day. Air conditioners run all summer. Even in the winter, big electric fans are needed to keep employees cool.

After they've been cooked, the potatoes are sent to a spinner that removes extra oil. It's like putting the chips in a giant clothes dryer. Periodically, the oil from the kettle fryers and the oil that is spun off the chips is drained and sold to perfume and soapmakers. (They purify it so you don't get soap that smells like French fries.)

Tumbled with salt and flavorings

Next, the potatoes pass through a tumbler that dumps salt or powdered flavors on the chips. This is where they become barbecue, sour-cream-and-chive, or vinegar-flavored chips. Finally, another worker removes any puffy, undercooked, or damaged chips before the rest go to another room to be bagged and boxed.

Not all potato chips are made the same way. For example, potato chips that come in pop-top cans are made from a dough of potato flakes and water. They are identically shaped and cooked on special forms so they can be stacked.

And if you think Cape Cod's 80,000 bags of chips a day is a lot, think again. Frito-Lay's factories turn out 13 million bags of Lay's potato chips every day. That's 3.9 trillion bags a year!

Cape Cod's workers aren't allowed to eat any chips at the factory, but everyone gets a box of potato chips every three months. Each box contains 16 bags. That's one bag of chips a week, with some left over. They even get some extra snack-size bags at Halloween (for trick-or-treaters), and samples of any new flavor.

And even after spending all day making potato chips, workers still enjoy them.

Geraldo Goncalves has worked here for 11 years . "I still eat them [at home] with a sandwich" he says, and he shares his chips with his three sons.

Many cultures, many favorite flavors of chips

Do you like barbecue or pizza-flavored potato chips? How about chicken curry, steak and onion, or garlic-flavored ones?

People in different parts of the world enjoy very different flavors of potato chips. Jeremy Selwyn tries to taste as many strangely flavored chips as he can.

Mr. Selwyn is Chief Snacks Officer at taquitos.net. He has tried about 400 different chips, ranging from sour-cream-and-clam flavored chips in Maine to shish-kebab flavored ones in Egypt. "Everybody eats potato chips," Selwyn says.

Potato chips were invented in the United States in the 1850s. They were first introduced outside the US in 1921, when they arrived in England. There they were called "crisps," because "chip" was already reserved for what Americans call French fries.

Today, children abroad may sample chips with such flavors as chicken-and-tomato (Poland), seaweed (Taiwan), and sweet-basil-and-fried-pork (Thailand). A British company even makes roast-beef-and- mustard "crisps." Paprika chips are popular in Switzerland.

Flavors also vary within the United States according to region. Ketchup chips can mainly be found in the Northeast near the Canadian border, while jalapeno pepper-flavored ones are popular in the Southwest.

Potato chips aren't everyone's favorite snack around the world. Children in Greece, for example, prefer pistachio nuts. Crackers outsell potato chips in Canada. Kids in Finland like popcorn better.

And in Latin America and the Caribbean, yucca, a stringy root vegetable, is the preferred item to be turned into chips, Selwyn says.

From luxury to grocery

Potato chips used to be served only at dinner and only in restaurants. It wasn't until 1895 that you could finally buy them in stores.

That year, William Tappendon in Cleveland, Ohio, started making potato chips in his kitchen. He later converted a barn behind his house into a potato-chip factory. Today, Tappendon is much less well-known than other potato-chip pioneers.

Take Earl Wise, who found he had too many potatoes at his grocery in the 1920s. He began selling chips in brown-paper bags. At the same time, Salie Utz started making chips in Hanover, Pa. Herman Lay, a traveling salesman, helped popularize chips in the American South in the 1920s. He sold them out of the trunk of his car.

You can still find Wise, Utz, and Lay's potato chips in stores.

Pringles were named after Pringle Street in Finneytown, Ohio. Ruffles, the first ridged potato chip sold nationally, weren't named after anything in particular when they made their debut in 1958.

Until 1926, potato chips in stores were kept in cracker barrels or special glass display cases. Customers took them home in paper bags.

Then Laura Scudder, who owned a small chip shop in California, had an idea. She gave her employees sheets of wax paper. At night, they ironed the wax paper into bags to fill with chips the next day. Finally, customers could take home bags of chips that stayed fresh.

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