For most foreigners overseas, the closest they’ll ever come to tasting American cuisine will be our junk food. McDonald’s, KFC, and Lay’s Potato chips are our culinary ambassadors, spreading the gospel of cheap, tasty, shit in neatly cloned packages. I’ve seen them in the most distant and murky corners of the world, strange beacons that have come to represent America and consumerized individuality dissipating into cultural oblivion. Personally, I’ve never liked Lay’s because they are so thin and wispy, crumbling almost immediately when I put them in my mouth. I want to feel guilty with each bite, like I have to pray for absolution with each chip I force on my overworked gut. Lay’s makes me feel like I’ve masturbated without coming, like I’ve taken a twenty-five second preview of porn in a motel without indulging in two hours of people pretending to enjoy contorted fucking. While in some countries, Lay’s goes by a different name (Vietnam: Poca; UK: Walkers; Mexico: Sabritas), in China, they are still called Lay’s, named after Herman Lay who was the original founder. He began his career in biscuits, got fired during the Great Depression, and delivered potato chips in 1932 as a traveling salesman from the trunk of his car because he didn’t have any other choice. Some might call him the poster boy of the American Dream. The original name was the H.W. Lay Lingo & Company which was shortened to Lay’s Lay Ling Company and was the first snack food manufacturer to purchase television commercials and celebrity spots. In North America, I’ve only seen three flavors including the original, which stills constitutes 79% of sales, along with sour cream & onion and barbecue. In China, I was surprised to find that they had a whole suite of oddly pungent varieties spread out over four ranges of flavors that included:
Cool and Refreshing: Cucumber, kiwi, blueberry, cherry tomato, and lime.
Classic Flavours: American Classic, Italian Red Meat, Mexican Tomato Chicken, Texas Grilled BBQ, and French Chicken.
Intense and Stimulating: Numb & Spicy Hot Pot, and Hot & Sour Fish Soup.
Stax: Authentic Original, Finger Licking Braised pork, Seafood Barbecue, Spicy Seafood, Tomato, Crispy Roasted Chicken, and Black Pepper Rib Eye Steak.
When a few local friends asked how good a job Lay’s did in recreating the flavors of international dishes, I became curious, especially with so many different types available, and decided to give each one a try. It was a faint reminder of home and I also wanted to know what I was missing out on. I went to my local Chaoshi, or supermarket, and in China, they really mean supermarket as it was over three stories tall. It was evening and as usual, nightlife was teeming—thousands of people of all ages outside exercising, dancing, playing Chinese chess, and wondering why the fuck I was recording them with a camera. There is no charge for the outdoor activities and people can come and go as they please. Is it strange that seeing so many people voluntarily exercising at night without fear of crime seems so alien? I went up to the second floor of the market, skipped past the beers, the moon cakes, the moth cocoons, and stacked up on the chips. The first thing I noticed was how zesty each of the covers was. Lay’s in America has a dull, uniform, color that’s pretty representative of the monotony packaged inside. The Chinese Lay’s depicts food photoshopped to make it seem like a glutton’s wet dream; shrimp jumping out of the dish, a grilled rib stacked next to the chips. I couldn’t wait to pop them open.
American Classic: Boring, slightly salty with a little grease, generally amicable but otherwise smug in its blandness—the American Classic flavor I was all too familiar with. I know it’s a lame way to start, but I had to sate my curiosity to know if they’d switch up the basic formula for an overseas market. It tastes exactly the same as it does in America.
Numb & Spicy Hot Pot: Hot pot, or huo guo, as it’s known, is a Chinese specialty dish comprised of dozens of dishes put together into a single hotly steaming stew, or “hot pot.” Sliced meats, mushrooms, dumplings, ginger, sea cucumbers, tofu, shrimp, scallion, and a dozen other sides go in and each region in China has different types of flavors for the brew, e pluribus unum. While the dish originated in Mongolia where the ancient horse warriors threw together stews using whatever they had at hand, it really founds its popularity during the Qing Dynasty of China. So imagine trying to get the most generalized version of that across the millions of different combinations available, divorcing it from its spicy origins, and then making it easily mass producible. The result is a bland potato chip that tastes like a candified huo guo.
Lime/Cucumber: Both were surprisingly cool and refreshing to the palate with just a hint of lime/cucumber to give it a little accent. Neither were bad, but I felt discomfited by the suspicion that this was intended as a healthy option with its vegetable-like taste. I don’t believe in healthy junk food, as when friends pick diet versions of sodas to accompany their meal and then eat a whole table worth of sodium. I consider dietary hypocrisy a carnal sin. Neither are my type of chips, but I can see others liking both.
Wildly Grilled Rib Flavor: I’m not sure what a non-wildly grilled rib flavor would taste like, but this was my favorite flavor by far. It actually tastes like ribs with a potato chip texture, powdered up, doused with salt, and then curved into a plain white fractal for my enjoyment. I wondered at the chemicals that went into recreating the flavor and the amount of preservatives that allowed them to date their minimum durability to nine months. Somewhere, some chemist with some fancy degree was working around the clock to try to get that number to ten. I’m reminded of the space food I see in the movies, a disgusting looking paste that somehow tastes like chicken, or in this case, ribs. Taste is a more powerful sense than sight as I will eat a tasty, but shitty, looking dish, but not the opposite. Thank you unknown chemist(s) of Lay’s. If you are single, I hope you are getting lots of lays for your hard work for the future of humanity.
Sweet Barbecued Pork Flavor: I don’t like sweet BBQ pork which is a pretty regular Chinese dish, and I disliked this chip even more. By implication, that would mean they did a good job recreating the flavor. The BBQ sauce in China is different from the BBQ sauce in America, using a combination of honey, five-spice powder, bean curd, dark soy sauce, and hoisin sauce. In China, while many of the shopping malls look identical to the ones in America, the smells remind you that you’re a stranger. You’ll be caught off guard by the scent of that sweetened pork wafting together with the stinky tofu, pig feet, and crawfish sold by many outdoor food carts. The malodorous bombardment of lusty hunger is compressed into livid angst and euphoria drowns in frustration that in turn dissipates into the serenity of acceptance—you will never be part of the olfactory landscape. Typically, you wrap the barbecued pork in a bun to make a Chinese version of a taco to give it some flavored balance. I tried wrapping a string of chips in a bun in my attempt at fusing foods, but it didn’t taste better. I’ve never had a potato chip taco before. For good reason. It sucks.
Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor: I love Mexican food and it’s the one cuisine I can’t find anywhere in China (not even a Taco Bell). I can find decent approximations of steaks, burgers, pasta, and even ice cream. But I can’t find good nachos or a burrito. I had hoped this would fulfill my craving, but the Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor was a poor, misguided, substitute. If anything, it tasted like an American interpreted chip based on Mexican flavors adjusted for Chinese patrons which meant that the chicken smelled of vinegar and a salty tomato shed skin left out in the sun too long. On the cover, they have an image of the cheap Nacho cheese they use at amusement parks that looks like cheese diarrhea barely tasting of cheddar. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Italian Red Meat: I found myself enjoying this odd chemical inducement of red meat and tomatoes blended to create a Frankenstein hybrid of Italian-American food. It was slightly better than the microwaved lasagnas I sometimes used to cook up when I was starving because I’d bought a dozen at ninety-nine cents each, not realizing I was clotting my veins a thousand cholesterols at a time. Of course as a student without much funds, I feasted on those microwave dinners, relishing each bite. It was the closest I could get to tasting actual pasta. Considering that each of the chips is only 3.5RMB (6.1RMB = 1USD), I wondered if each Lay’s chip represented a taste of something beyond, a promise of international egress at an affordable price. I hoped not. Even if I could convince myself as a student that the microwaved dish tasted good, I knew deep down it was only a notch above sweetened plastic.
Texas Grilled BBQ: In contrast to the sweet barbecued pork flavor, I like a good Texas grilled BBQ. But I wondered if my taste buds were numbing because this tasted almost exactly like the American Classic flavor with a slight hint of BBQ. Perhaps that was always the intent of chips and junk food in general; to numb taste buds so that after some point, shit tastes like steaks and BBQ. I’m protesting junk food for doing exactly what it was meant to do; unify tastes all throughout the world. It was chemical warfare based on changing the ecosystem of our bodies to be identical to one another; artificially supported, artificially energized, artificially induced. Addiction isn’t a disease. It’s a goal. No longer did we need to yell to show our dedication to Big Brother. We ate it, every day.
Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish: The first time I had peppercorns, I cried, not because it was so good, but because it was so spicy. My face turned red, I could barely feel my cheeks, and the tears streamed out. The Lay’s Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish flavor will make you cry, not because it’s so spicy or good, but because the cover has a dead fish on it covered in peppercorns that reminds you of all the dying fish of the world and the promise of environmental disaster in the foreseeable future. I had one chip and was done.
Zesty Tomato Flavor: Oh God, no more. I wondered to myself if there would ever be a buffet in the future made up entirely of Lay’s chips from all over the world. They’d call it an international feast of worldly cuisines interpreted through the canvas of salt and potatoes. A hundred years from now, maybe two hundred, it wasn’t hard to imagine that foods everywhere would have junk food versions of them that would become meal staples, especially with natural ingredients running out. No one would know what the real ones tasted like and it wouldn’t matter because they’d be forgotten. Hell, I’ve heard in China, Panda Express is being marketed as American food, though I have yet to see a Panda Express in China. For now, I find myself slightly envious of China for having so many Lay’s varieties while in America, I am stuck with three I don’t like very much. I’d even be glad for the ones I don’t like, just to feel like I’m not missing out.
Conclusion: I think back on Herman Lay, fired from his job, wandering America selling his chips while poverty was all around him. Could he imagine that almost 80 years later, someone would be reviewing his ubiquitous chips overseas in China? Perhaps Lay’s wasn’t selling potato chips so much as it was possibilities. What the fuck am I saying? It’s just junk food.