The Secret Story of Salt and Vinegar Chips: the Canada Letter

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And I have some good news for you many fans of the long-vanished Cuban Lunch chocolate bar. Crystal R. Westergard of Alberta told me that she decided to do something to satisfy her 84-year-old mother’s longing for one. Ms. Westergard has assumed control of the Cuban Lunch trademark, started a company, found a recipe (updated to remove palm oil) and hired a candy maker in Delta, British Columbia, to bring the square bars back to life. They should be on sale this summer.

Among the most interesting people who answered my call was Jim Connell, the man who figured out how to put the vinegar into salt-and-vinegar potato chips, a perennial Canadian favorite.

Mr. Connell is 93 and lives in Toronto. But he told me the flavoring breakthrough first happened in Britain. It was 1968 and Mr. Connell was working in the flavor development for the Canadian subsidiary of an American company, Griffith Laboratories, when he was sent off to Bristol, England, to help establish a joint venture there with an outfit that mostly made sausage ingredients.

Shortly after his arrival, Mr. Connell said, he was approached by Imperial Tobacco, which at the time was expanding its spectrum of vices to include potato chips. Like Canadians, the British have long sprinkled vinegar on deep fried potatoes, something Mr. Connell said he suspected was about masking the flavor of the “rancid grease” used by fish ‘n’ chip shops. In any case, the tobacco company figured that echoing the taste in potato chips — the British call them “crisps” — would be a winner.

But spraying crispy snacks with vinegar would only produce a soggy mess. So Mr. Connell’s task was to figure out a way to create a dried form of acetic acid, as vinegar is known to chemists, that would stick to freshly fried chips/crisps and remain stable on store shelves. Fifty years on, Mr. Connell still would not disclose the secret, but the fundamental step involves converting vinegar to a salt called sodium acetate.

The tobacco company ultimately passed on the product. But a much smaller and older British potato chip company that was struggling decided to bite, and was saved by salt and vinegar’s immediate success. Griffith Labs, which is still a major force in the arcane world of flavorings, soon brought salt and vinegar to Canada.

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