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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Pondering Chips

April 25, 2023

BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, TUSCANY— Things are different over here. It’s not just the language. Spaces are smaller. Roads are tighter. Bathrooms are tinier. But there’s a reason for all of that. The roads are tighter because many were built over one thousand years ago and were meant to accommodate horses, carriages, wagons, and people traveling by foot. The bathrooms in the historic city centers are smaller because those buildings were built 700 years ago before indoor plumbing was a thing.

I tell my guests to embrace the differences. Sure, we could travel to Cleveland and have larger hotel rooms, bigger restaurants, and English speaking servers. But we’d be in Cleveland. As it is, we are in Tuscany, one of the most beautiful and amazing places on earth.

Traditions are different in every country. That’s why we travel to them. We go there, we embrace the differences, appreciate the culture and heritage, and we learn that everyone is unique, yet at the same time, alike in so many ways.

One thing that has surprised me over the years— especially in this part of Italy— is the reverence for potato chips. Simple potato chips are almost always served during cocktails. I first noticed this as a guest in people’s homes, when they would bring out a small bowl of basic potato chips to nibble on. Occasionally they would add pistachios or something to the before-dinner-antipasti mix, but always potato chips. If there was a buffet dinner the table will be set with various local cheeses, meats, fruits, assorted crostini, several bruschetti, and potato chips.

Restaurants serve basic potato chips as well, and not just the casual trattorias and osterias. I knew it must be a thing when visiting Villa San Michelle a five-star hotel in Fiesole high above Florence. My group ordered cocktails and the formally dressed servers brought out a bowl of potato chips.

I’m not complaining. I love potato chips. I think I might start serving them at the bar of our Italian restaurants. The problem is no one in America would think that’s an authentic and legitimate Italian thing. Potato chips are pretty workmanlike in America. Had I not spent so much time over here I would think so too.

I have had a lifelong love affair with potato chips. As a kid, we ate Rice’s brand potato chips. They were made locally. I wonder if all potato chips were made locally back then? Either way, mine were, and I don’t think I truly appreciated that until this moment. It’s just another reason to love Hattiesburg, the town where I grew up, and still live today.

The greatest treat in all in kiddom was getting to visit the Rice’s potato chip factory. I’m not sure what would impress 10-year-old Robert more than a potato chip factory. My grandparents lived in New York and took me to all the sites and museums there. My uncle lived in Washington DC and took me to the Smithsonian and all of the monuments. But I would imagine— in 1971— if you would have asked me, “Robert, what’s the most impressive thing you have ever seen?” I would have said the Rice’s potato chip factory in Hattiesburg Ms. I was lucky to have been able to visit the plant twice. Once on a school field trip and another time with my Cub Scout troop. We ate them fresh out of the hot oil.

Sometime in the mid-70s, all my friends started eating Charles Chips. They came in big tin cans that they kept on the counter in their kitchen. They were delivered directly to their houses. We never had Charles Chips. I assumed they were for the rich folks, and we couldn’t afford them. Today I know that Charles Chips are made in Pennsylvania. Rice’s were made across town. My mom was local before local was cool.

Sometime in high school, I started using applesauce as a dip for my potato chips. Most people are highly offended by that pairing when I speak of it, but it’s contempt prior to investigation. Give it a shot. The salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth, pair well.

Then Pringles potato chips came out and the pairing stepped up a notch. Pringles and applesauce are excellent.

Most probably think I should turn in my culinary legitimacy card for liking Pringles potato chips. After all they’re not real potato chips. They are just processed pieces of potato pulp that have been formed into the same exact shape and uniformly stacked into a cardboard can. The people at Rice’s potato chips in Hattiesburg would have never done anything like that. They sliced, fried, and bagged their potatoes. But Pringles are good. And apparently, they’re good enough for the Italians because there are tons of them over here.

One thing I discovered in the grocery stores here in Tuscany is a different flavor of Pringles that isn’t available in America. They are called Pringles Paprika, and they are excellent! (Author’s note: I rarely, if ever, use an exclamation point when writing. I reserve them for the rare occasion that needs true emphasis. Pringles Paprika chips deserve all the emphasis I can give them).

Pringles Paprika have been dusted with some orange stuff that I’m sure was developed in a lab somewhere. But they taste great. I don’t know if they are made over here or shipped over here because the label is written in Italian and the font is way too small for these eyes. But if they are made in America and Pringles is holding out on us and shipping them all to Italy, I am going to file a complaint.

I have discovered so many great dishes and food items in my travels over here for the past 12 years. I, by no means, would put Paprika Pringles anywhere near the top of the list. But it’s on the list.

I stock both villas with breakfast foods and snack foods for our guests. The breakfast items I stock are typical fruits, cereals, granola, coffee, and the like. The snack foods are pistachios, Nutella cookies, fruit, olives, cheeses, prosciutto, salami, and Pringles Paprika. Want to take a guess which item gets eaten first? Yep, Pringles Paprika, every time.

I once had a group that ate so many, I purchased an entire case at the grocery store and brought it back to the 14 people staying in that villa. Within two days they were all gone. When they found out Pringles Paprika couldn’t be purchased in America, a lot of them put cans in their luggage.

It’s not fair. The Italians have so much history. They birthed the Renaissance, and have Pringles Paprika, too. I’m glad the people at Rice’s potato chips aren’t around to witness this.

My son arrived yesterday. We took him to a five-star hotel on the edge of town for cocktails. The restaurant in the hotel has a Michelin star. When we sat down, they brought us a small bowl of potato chips. Maybe it’s time we Americans start looking at the lowly potato chip in a new light and give it the reverence it deserves.

Onward.

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