Why Are Tortilla Chips So Damn Good?

For the past thirty years a handful of scientists at Texas A&M have devoted themselves to answering an extremely important question.

September 2009By Comments

The TA.XT2 texture analyzer, from Texture Technologies, in the lab at Texas A&M.
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

Though he is now, among other things, an internationally known expert on the tortilla, Lloyd Rooney was a grown man with a Ph.D. before he first bit into one. This happened in 1965 or ’66, not long after he joined the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M. He was raised on a wheat farm in Kansas—one of his earliest memories is of following his grandfather through a field of wheat—and for his doctorate in cereal chemistry at Kansas State he’d studied the browning of bread. Hired as a sorghum specialist, with funding to research sorghum quality for livestock feed, Rooney arrived at A&M with little experience of Mexican culture or Mexican food. Then came a fateful trip to South Texas for a “field day,” an opportunity for agricultural researchers and farmers to meet with one another. There, he ate something round and soft and wonderful.

“At that time I would have called it a ‘tor-till-a,’ ” he told me, pronouncing the word so that it rhymed with “gorilla.” Tortillas were then still a food that came from across the tracks. He became fascinated with them, though, especially corn tortillas, “because they were good, number one, and number two, when I asked questions about the making of them, the production, the chemistry, very little was known.” Tortillas were a promising candidate for study. “I came out of a program that was wheat bread, wheat bread, wheat bread. I was sick of wheat,” Rooney said.

I met Rooney at the 13th Annual Practical Short Course in Snack Foods Processing, held last April at A&M. I’d come there hoping to learn at least a little bit about tortilla chips, which, in addition to constituting, along with salsa, the official Texas state snack, have been a subject of scientific study in College Station for more than thirty years. If nothing else, I wanted to know who had undertaken that scholarly pursuit and why and what it consisted of; in my mind was a hazy image of a bag of chips, a dish of guacamole, and lasers.

Attendance at the course was down this year, which organizers attributed both to the global economic crisis and to the fact that they’d been unable to time it just before a snack food industry event known as SNAXPO. Nevertheless, on the first morning of the course, a couple dozen snackologists from around the globe convened early in the morning to listen to a lecture called “Extruders in Snack Food Preparation,” followed by a discourse on pressing issues faced by the industry, delivered by a man representing the Snack Food Association. Just for starters, the man complained, there was a tendency rampant in the media to label snacks “junk food,” whereas a preferable term would be “fun food.” Snacks have many adversaries, he implied. Among them seemed to be the state of California and the entire European Union.

Rooney, who deserves much of the credit for establishing Texas A&M as a center of tortilla studies, was up next. A wiry man of about seventy with a sergeant’s squint and a low, booming voice, he began with a sharp “Howdy!” It was as much a command as a greeting.

We howdyed back.

Wheat behaves differently than most other grains, in that when water is added to wheat flour, the flour’s proteins become hydrated and form a dough. Corn must be treated more aggressively to get it to gelatinize and form masa, the dough from which tortillas and tortilla chips are made. The crucial step is called nixtamalization. “That’s a fancy word to say we cook the corn in lime,” Rooney instructed the short course participants, emphasizing certain words by punching the final consonant, “and we remove the pericarp, the outer covering of the kernel.” To make masa, corn is cooked in the alkaline solution that results from adding ash or quicklime to water, then it’s steeped, washed, and ground. The Mayans figured this out; we’ll never know how—you don’t exactly just reach for the oregano and then decide to use ashes instead. As with so many aspects of cooking, the methods we take for granted much of the time seem strange and ingenious when you stop to consider them. Perhaps, Rooney speculated during his lecture, it was the invention of a wayward toddler. “If some enterprising person happened to put corn into the pot and their son or daughter threw ashes into there, they found out that that cooked the corn much more rapidly.”

As a young scientist, Rooney had wanted to probe how the whole tortilla-making process worked, from a chemical as well as a practical perspective. What was happening inside the corn kernel as it cooked? What caused the successive physical changes? What would happen if you tweaked the conditions?

But initially Rooney’s higher-ups didn’t find these questions as compelling, and it was years before he could secure the funding to establish Texas A&M as a center of tortilla research. He was supposed to be a sorghum guy. So in the mid-seventies, when he and his students nevertheless initiated a series of tortilla studies, they had to start quite literally from scratch, making masa with a hand grinder. Colleagues would tease them, asking, in Rooney’s recollection, “Why the heck would you want to work on tortillas?”

And not just tortillas. “We started with table tortillas, but the Frito-Lay company had pioneered in corn chips and then, with Doritos, the corn tortilla chips, and I happened to like both those snacks,” Rooney said. (Corn chips are fried masa pieces, whereas to make a tortilla chip you partially bake the dough first, then fry it.) So Rooney’s team chose to investigate tortilla chips in addition to tortillas. They studied corn hybrids, they studied alkaline cooking, they studied frying and rollability and breakability. Along the way, they had to ask themselves which qualities were most desirable: In other words, what makes a good tortilla chip good?

I have found no consensus regarding whether the tortilla chip ought to be considered a Mexican food or a north-of-the-border one. Corn tortillas themselves are certainly of Mesoamerican origin, and cooks in Mexico have long subjected tortillas, stale ones in particular, to hot oil, turning them into tostadas or totopos, fried platforms for other foods. But then there’s the tortilla chip, the thing that comes in a bag or a basket and is meant to be shoveled into the mouth by people who do not restrict themselves to feeding at mealtimes and so have come to sustain a gazillion-dollar snack food industry. It is we the eaters and our food companies who took those staple crops of the Americas, potatoes and corn, and turned them into palate-seducing fried snacks of dubious nutritional value.

Maybe chips ought to be classified as binational rather than as belonging to one country or the other. Barry Popik—an etymologist and onetime Republican candidate for Manhattan borough president, who now lives in Austin—has unearthed advertisements for tortilla chips in Texas and California newspapers from the early thirties, as well as an article from the New York Herald Tribune stating that tortilla chips were “sold by bushels” at the 1936 Texas Centennial. (Chips’ possible uses, the article further explained, included being “stuffed into tomatoes” and “in tuna fish salad.”) Gradually, as tortilla production grew more automated, companies like El Zarape Tortilla Factory of Los Angeles began to manufacture and distribute bagged chips; El Zarape called them “tort chips.” Dallas-based Frito-Lay introduced Doritos in 1966 and Tostitos in 1980. A traditional Mexican food had been converted into a regional snack and then further modified by Texas businessmen, who took it nationwide.

In 2007 the combined U.S. sales of Doritos and Tostitos varieties exceeded $1.4 billion, representing more than 70 percent of the total tortilla chip purchases in this country, while millions more bags of the things were sold overseas. Even as they have carpeted the planet, their formulations remain akin to state secrets. “You won’t get a thing out of Fritos,” one of Rooney’s colleagues warned me. “You won’t get one thing out of them.” Indeed, it took a couple of calls just to find a phone number for the Frito-Lay public relations department. When I called it, one person took my information, and a second person, “Aurora,” e-mailed me later, informing me that my request to interview one of the company’s food scientists had been passed on to an unnamed third person in the PR department—“my colleague who works with the brands”—and that I could expect to hear back from that individual at some point.

Incidentally, it was a group of third graders from Mission—the town, not the tortilla chip brand—who pushed for legislation to recognize chips and salsa as the official state snack. Their local representative, Kino Flores, insisted that his 2003 resolution to do just that was not a waste of time but rather a worthy way to involve youngsters in the democratic process. (“Whereas, Folk foods that have become commercial giants, chips and salsa stand out among Texas snacks because of their historic origins and universal appeal; embraced today by Texans of every ethnic background, they constitute a much-savored part of our shared cultural identity . . .” )

To the outsider, Texas A&M is a curious place. Known for its conservatism, the campus appears to have been designed by central planners; it’s as if the tan buildings were all variations on one tan building, the small trees all versions of the same small tree. It is scrupulously clean, and along its unlittered walkways, obscure rituals are observed. Lloyd Rooney’s “howdy” was not a personal affect but an institutional one: On the elevator we rode each day to the short-course classroom, a disembodied voice also said “howdy” after the doors closed. One day, two girls asked me to take their picture because they were wearing the same shirt. It was “whoop day,” they explained, which was the only day of the year that sophomores are permitted to whoop. (Naturally, I encouraged them to whoop away. Later on, still wondering, I hunted for an explanation online and came across this usage example: Professor: “The midterm has been moved to next week.” Student: “WHOOP.”)

A&M’s singular culture has given us the bioengineered maroon carrot, a cloned bull, and the current governor of Texas. And contained within it are enigmatic subcultures, such as the Corps of Cadets, students who march around in military dress and are bound by certain theatrical rules. For example, when a lesser cadet encounters a greater cadet on a path, there follows such a pas de deux of yelling and gesticulating and trotting about that it’s a wonder the cadets can make it to class at all.

When Rooney came to A&M, in 1965, the student body was predominantly male and the business of howdying all the more fervid. “Most everyone was still wearing uniforms, and they came up to you and whipped out their hand and grabbed your hand and shook it,” he said. When women started entering the school on an equal basis with men, in 1971, “it changed the whole situation much for the better,” Rooney said. “It brought with it a number of young ladies that wanted to major in food science and technology and related areas. We began to have more students, teach more classes.”

In fact, food science owes an even earlier debt to women. Harvey Levenstein’s engaging history of American eating, Paradox of Plenty, relates the development of food science to the increasing percentage of women in the workplace after World War II: Even as the image of the aproned fifties housewife surrounded by her new appliances gained a spot in the gallery of national archetypes, more and more of her real-life counterparts were seeking jobs to help pay for those appliances (and houses and cars). With less time to cook, they bought more cake mixes, canned vegetables, and sliced bread—products developed by food scientists and engineers.

Rooney’s lab benefited from another group whose numbers, in the Soil and Crop Sciences department at least, swelled in the seventies: Mexican graduate students. With funding from the Mexican government, they could be put to work studying tortillas. “I didn’t know much about Mexican culture, but these guys taught me fast,” he said. “They were just good. Though how you make tortillas—they didn’t know particularly well either.” At first the equipment they used to evaluate, say, corn cooking procedures, was as basic as could be: A typical sentence from the “materials and methods” section of an early paper reads, “The mixture of corn, lime, and water was cooked in a stainless steel pot on a conventional electric hot plate.” The work could be rough going, recalled Helbert Almeida, who was a graduate student and then a research scientist in Rooney’s lab in the eighties. “It was ugly. The consistency of our product was all over the place,” he said.

In food science, consistency and durability matter a great deal. The sort of on-the-fly adjustments made by a home cook—who can start over after burning the garlic or taste a dish in progress and add more of this or that—cannot be done in a factory except at great expense. And yet a food company must confront many of the same variables, such as ingredient quality and environmental conditions, as a person making dinner. “In the baking industry, every season’s flour is different,” I was told by Marc Johnson, whose company, Texture Technologies, makes equipment that analyzes the texture of food and other products and who has collaborated with the A&M tortilla researchers. “You expect Oreos to always be the same, but Nabisco is jumping through hoops like mad every year trying to make the same product with a different raw ingredient.”

And so food scientists try to learn as much as they can about the nature of those raw ingredients and processing conditions. At Texas A&M, Rooney and his colleagues assessed everything from corn quality to frying oil temperatures, and while there may not have been any revolutionary discoveries, they gradually came to know much more about maize, both raw and cooked. Masa, for instance, was not what Rooney had expected it to be. He’d assumed that corn cooked in alkaline solution would gelatinize completely. “I should have known better, because grains are organized in a certain way and don’t just fall apart. You begin to realize, the structure of this is such that it takes a lot of time for the water to penetrate.” When the cooked corn is ground up, the result is a heterogeneous network of starch, gelatinized starch, bits of the corn’s outer layers, and liquid—that’s masa. “My very first idea—it was dumb, but that’s kind of the fun and the frustration of working with some of these things that are very simple seemingly but quite complex if you look closely,” Rooney said. There are, moreover, different kinds of masa: coarser masa for making chips or a more thoroughly cooked and finely ground masa for making table tortillas.

At a typical small tortilla plant, someone just knows from experience when the corn has been cooked properly and can tell good masa from bad by sight and feel. Many of the A&M scientists’ endeavors were aimed at substituting objective measures for that person. Their work attracted the interest of the snack food industry, which helped underwrite the country’s first tortilla pilot plant. In the eighties A&M started hosting a yearly “Mexican foods workshop” for food company people to learn about making tortillas, chips, and salsas. That workshop came to focus more on tortillas and chips and by the late nineties had evolved into the snack foods short course. Rooney, meanwhile, had not abandoned his sorghum studies; he’d been traveling abroad to participate in conferences (i.e., “Sorghum in the Seventies”) and working directly with African sorghum farmers. Allowing his enthusiasms to cross-pollinate, he even made sorghum tortillas and sorghum tortilla chips in the pilot plant, although if these appealed to anyone in the snack food industry, that too has been kept on the down low. Rooney is now considered by some to be the world’s top sorghum expert.

On the second day of the course I witnessed a graduate student penetrate a tortilla chip specimen with a ball probe. We’d been bused over from the building where the lectures took place to the Minnie Belle and Herman F. Heep Center, home of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences (and within that department, the tortilla pilot plant), and there we were split into smaller groups to watch various demonstrations. Inside the pilot plant—a humming, cavernous room full of equipment for making and assessing tortillas—half a dozen of us had gathered around a gracious Kenyan student named Tom Jondiko, who was giving a demonstration of a gizmo from Texture Technologies called a TA.XT2 texture analyzer. He placed a Tostito on the target platform of something resembling a souped-up sewing machine, and then a steel probe with a ball at the tip descended upon the chip until it broke. On a computer monitor nearby appeared a force curve—a jagged graph of peaks and valleys measuring the resistance encountered by the probe as it penetrated the specimen, each peak representing an instance of the probe breaking through a solid part of the chip to an air pocket.

“Now we can try with the Santitas,” announced Jondiko before carefully sliding a different brand of chip onto the platform to be crushed. As the probe descended, I wondered to just what extent judgements of taste, even for something as basic as a tortilla chip, could be mechanized. Would this machine actually determine whether a given chip had an appealing texture?

Not exactly, I learned. Consider the act of eating a tortilla chip. The casual snacker remains blessedly unaware of all that is occurring in her mouth and brain as she bites and then chews that heterogeneous matrix of starch and fat and air pockets, sensing it not only with teeth and tongue but ear and jaw and somehow judging from all sorts of varying information—about how it deforms and how it sounds and what vibrations it causes in the jaw—how crispy it is. A tortilla chip should be crispy, most would agree, but crispiness is a more elusive attribute than you might think. In the seventies, in fact, studies were done to determine what measurable properties correlated to people’s perceptions of crispiness. Scientists recorded the sounds foods made when crushed, as well as bone-conducted sounds produced by chewing; they used a texturometer to measure vibrations of crushed food and found some correlation between the machine’s measurements and humans’ perceptions. However, the instrumental results and the judgments of tasters didn’t line up perfectly.

“Consumers have a really extraordinary sense of how crisp something is,” said Marc Johnson, of Texture Technologies. “If I were to give you two rods the size of your pencil, and you were to bite into them, and one of them was marble and your teeth were closing in on it, you would not have to break your teeth to know that that marble one is harder than a pencil and therefore you should stop biting. What your jaw does is it measures how fast that force is climbing relative to the strength of your teeth and relative to the position of your jaw.” What his company’s machines can do is make an objective measurement of the same thing. What they can’t do is tell a chip maker what to shoot for: It’s up to humans to decide the optimal measurements, by measuring chips that have already been deemed good.

Moreover, each individual tortilla chip has its own profile. “That’s one of the beauties in a product like this,” I was told by Gail Vance Civille, the president of a New Jersey company called Sensory Spectrum. “The texture is variable across the different chips. That is part of the entertainment of the eating.” Civille’s company has developed extremely fine-tuned methods of descriptive analysis for food and other products; I’d phoned to find out more about how chips are evaluated. In a snack, texture is crucial, possibly outranking even flavor in importance, she explained. “A product that is labor-driven, you spend more time on flavor. A product like snack products, where there is not a whole lot of flavor but the texture is predominant, you spend more time on that.” And chip texture, to an expert, is a highly complex phenomenon. “Oh, my gosh, in terms of the texture, it has to have a certain amount of hardness or firmness, and it has to be crispy and crunchy. It has to have some dense parts that give it the bigger breaks, and then as you chew it down you have to have some granules between your teeth, something to keep chewing on. Those are absolutely drop-dead critical elements.”

I’d never thought to distinguish between crispy and crunchy, and I asked her to explain. “To be totally not humble, this is what we really know well,” she said of her company. The difference could be heard in the words “crispy” and “crunchy” themselves: “Crisp things have many small breaks, and it goes, ‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.’ Cris-p. Crunchy has fewer breaks”—here she made a noise with her throat. “In French it’s crispant and croquant. Most cereals are crispy, especially Rice Krispies, except if you have oat clusters, they’re crunchy.” Some foods can have both qualities: Tortilla chips, Civille said, “are on the cusp of crispy and crunchy.”

To evaluate a product, she uses three different sets of information: the measurements of an instrument like the texture analyzer, the assessment of a trained panel of judges (taste-testers who have been schooled in sensory analysis to make the same sort of precise distinctions that Civille does), and the ratings of untrained consumers. “You’re looking to see if the instrument and the highly trained panel agree, because if the instrument and the human are saying two different things, I will tell you the instrument is wrong.”

And what does the human say? In 2001 a food science professor at the University of Arkansas named Jean-Francois Meullenet supervised a class project in which students conducted a taste test of eleven different white tortilla chip brands. Eighty recruited volunteers were given chips to try on paper plates and told to rate overall impression, appearance, flavor, and texture on a nine-point scale. Three products led the pack: Tostitos Restaurant Style, Tostitos Bite-Size, and Santitas, all of them made by Frito-Lay. There is, of course, the question of how much one can generalize from the preferences of eighty people in Arkansas who signed up to participate in a tortilla chip taste test—or so I tried to reassure myself after reading about the results, since I myself don’t care much for Tostitos of any size. It was either discount the Arkansas results or face the fact that my qualifications as a tortilla chip judge and even as a tortilla chip journalist might be lacking.

I mentioned my Tostitos problem to Civille, who told me that to someone living in Texas with considerable “exposure” to chips, a brand like that might not seem the most “authentic.” But the very fact that a certain company was selling Tostitos meant that they had been, in a sense, democratically and scientifically elected as the best chip. “The reason that that company that shall remain nameless sells as much stuff as they do is that they have done this kind of research to figure out what drives the consumer to buy it, love it, and eat more of it. It may be a little bit commercial for you, but for the people in the rest of the U.S. who have different exposure, that chip is perfect! They’re making what those people think is perfect.”

Since 1983 Frito-Lay has been headquartered in Plano, a couple hundred miles north of College Station. Texas A&M students regularly find internships and jobs there, and the company has undertaken joint research projects with Rooney’s lab. Accordingly, there is a fair amount of informal communication between the university and the snack hegemon, but that only goes so far. Given the fact that Doritos have been around since the sixties, I asked Rooney, wouldn’t Frito-Lay presumably have already studied some of the same problems his lab was investigating in the eighties? “They’d been looking at some of them, you bet,” he said, “but usually that information’s pretty confidential and relatively unavailable.”

The techniques behind the Tostito are closely guarded for a reason. On the second day of the short course, one of Rooney’s colleagues, Cassandra McDonough, gave a presentation drawn from her work using an environmental scanning electron microscope to probe the microstructure of tortillas, chips, masa, and other materials. Often this work is done on contract, to solve a specific problem: A company comes to her with some bad masa and some good and asks her to figure out what went wrong with the inferior sample. She showed us side-by-side magnified images of the two masas, and the difference was stark. The good masa appeared gluey and lumpy, like overcooked oatmeal, while the bad masa looked like a pile of pebbles. The corn in the second case had been too hard, McDonough concluded, and so it hadn’t been nixtamalized sufficiently. Yet in other cases, the client’s motives are more openly competitive: A company will present a rival’s product and ask for an analysis of it. “You want to know why someone’s doing better than you,” she said.

Later I went back to speak with McDonough in private, and she confirmed that snack manufacturing can indeed be a ruthless business. Sometimes people have enrolled in the course under the apparent misconception that because of Texas A&M’s relationship with snack food manufacturers, they would learn industry secrets. “It’s crazy—they get really cutthroat. People will just brazenly come out and say, ‘How does Frito-Lay do this?’ And I’ll say, ‘You work for who?’ And they’ll sheepishly walk away.” I thought back to a pair of Korean snack men who’d been at the course; one night I’d bumped into them at Albertsons, where they’d been loading up a cart with what seemed like one of every bagged product in the chip aisle. My first thought was that they were planning some sort of hedonistic munch-a-thon in their hotel room, but then I realized they meant to take all these chips home to Korea. I told McDonough about them, and she predicted, “They’re going to take them back and pick them apart and have somebody tell them how this was made.”

A soft-voiced woman with close-cropped hair who favors work boots and cargo pants, McDonough describes herself as a visual puzzle-solver. “It’s intuitive for me because I’m dyslexic, and I’ve always dealt with images rather than words,” she told me. She’ll look at an image of, say, a tortilla chip magnified two hundred times, which with its air pockets and porous solid parts looks like a giant sponge, and see more than just a static picture. As a result of her training and visual orientation, “I see everything that’s going into it and coming out of it. I see the chip and I can see how the masa was milled, how it was treated, how it was fried, how it was treated after frying. It all flows together for me. I view it as an organism,” she said.

Some of McDonough’s puzzles come directly from a company with a specific problem or case of chip envy; others arise out of broader food trends. The low-fat phenomenon of the eighties, for example, spurred A&M’s scientists to look at exactly what happens during frying. “That was a fundamental question that nobody knew the answer to,” McDonough said. “How much oil is really in here, and how does it get in, and how can we keep it from getting in?” Using images of chips at different stages of frying, McDonough was able to chart this process visually, while a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Rosana Moreira, developed a mathematical model that showed that much of the oil actually penetrated the chip after frying.

McDonough was also able to see what made chips crunch, namely, their air-cell walls collapsing. “Something as simple as an air-cell wall—that’s what makes it crunchy and not dense,” she said. The company that sells a good chip, she said, is essentially selling air; the crispier and crunchier the chip, the more the eater will eat.

It’s been almost thirty years since Rooney first took her on as a technician. “Our interview kind of went, ‘Do you mind getting yelled at?’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No, you’re pretty much like my dad.’ And he said, ‘Okay, you’re hired.’ So I worked my way up, and he encouraged me to get my master’s degree in food science while I was working. I ran his labs. I learned a little bit of everything.” Today she works in a narrow office brimming with papers and corn samples and military paraphernalia; her husband is in the Army, as is her brother. Beside her desk is a photo of her husband with his head wrapped in a desert nomad’s scarf, aiming a gun at the camera. At the time of our conversation, all she was at liberty to say was that he was in Afghanistan. Between chip secrets and troop location secrets, she said, “I’ve got so many little boxes up there that are sealed shut.”

Having studied chips extensively, McDonough knows by sight whether she’ll like a chip or not. “If it’s translucent, real oily, I know I’m not going to like it. I like light, crunchy chips. I like white corn because it’s sweeter. I don’t like added flavors.” I asked her whether a particular chip came to mind. “For me, I would go with Tostitos. I think they are probably the best chip on the market.”

Again I had cause to doubt myself as a chip eater (and later I would yet another time, after Rooney said that he too favors Tostitos, though it’s Original Flavor SunChips he’s helpless to quit eating once he starts). I confessed my preference for a thinner, less salty, more flavorful chip to McDonough. “Yeah, in North Texas they like the lighter chips. In Austin they like the kind of chip you’re talking about. In Houston they get more into the thicker chips. When you get into San Antonio and South Texas, they want thick, oily chips.” I asked her how she knew these things. Naturally, she couldn’t say.

Then again, tastes can’t always be accounted for. Recently, McDonough’s best friend had defected from Tostitos to H-E-B’s Hatch chile-flavored chips, she told me. Now, here was a puzzle: It was as if the friend had up and moved to Montreal for no good reason. “She was a Tostitos fanatic forever, then suddenly she started buying these Hatch chile chips,” said McDonough, who nonetheless was not at all tempted to try a Hatch chile-flavored tortilla chip. “It doesn’t look like a good chip to me.”

Chris Kuechenmeister, the director of Frito-Lay’s public relations department, did eventually call, as promised, but he quickly made it clear that I wouldn’t find out anything about how the company had developed the perfect chip. “The challenge I face is, we have a lot of things we do over here that are very confidential,” he said. He was able to confirm that Doritos were introduced in 1966, Tostitos in 1980. It was a short conversation.

The most I could do was what the Koreans had done. As I was about to leave College Station and drive back to Austin, I stopped at a gas station and dropped $3.99 on a bag of Tostitos Restaurant Style chips. I opened the bag in the car and tried one. Newly attuned to its texture, I did find something marvelous in it, in that lightness and crispiness unexampled in nature or in any home kitchen, for that matter. Here is a completely processed, endlessly proliferated thing, but each one is just slightly different, while the methods of its proliferation are kept under lock and key in Plano.

I wouldn’t say I liked Tostitos any more than I had before, but that afternoon I was better able to appreciate them. And after eating four or five or maybe ten I stopped at another gas station and deposited them in the garbage, so as not to reach Austin with two pounds of chips in my stomach and my lips salt-shriveled away to nothing. I would think back to this a few days later when I spoke to Jorge Garcia, who runs Curra’s Grill, a popular Mexican restaurant in Austin. I’d contacted him to learn more about how someone in his position, someone whose restaurant chomps through 150 pounds of chips per day, decides on the best chip to serve. He gamely answered my questions but then added his own assessment: “Give me two beers and I’ll take any of them.”

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