Thursday, 28 February 2013


This is another blog for the excellent Perfect Pint website. 

Without doubt the most popular pub snack is the potato crisp. Tens of millions of bags pass over the bar counter every year. 
Like most other things in the pub their exact origins can be debated. What is certain is that their introduction into Britain is the responsibility of Frank Smith, a curiously shadowy figure.
In the early 1920s, so the story goes, Frank packaged crisps cooked by his wife in greaseproof paper bags selling them from his pony and trap around north London. He also included a twist of salt for flavouring.  
Why and how he had this idea we will probably never know.
Crisps became so popular that within a decade Smiths Crisps dominated the infant savoury snack industry.
Crisps were originally marketed as being a nutritious convenience food for busy housewives, which could be enjoyed reheated as well as straight from the packet.
Smiths were also keen to break into pubs. Before crisps, pub snacks largely consisted of pickled eggs, stale sandwiches and, as George Orwell found: “those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses”.
Crisps had the advantage of having a reasonable shelf life, the packets looked attractive, and of course the salt encouraged thirst.
But they were expensive. A packet cost 2d, when a pint was 4d or 5d. So take-up was limited.
Their success in pubs probably results from the fact that they were one of the few foods not rationed in wartime.
Originally crisps only came with little packets of salt that the customer sprinkled on themselves. Maurice Gorham in The Local urged crisp-eaters not “to miss the salt which is in a little blue bag inside the main bag.”
The first flavoured crisps were marketed in the 1930s, including a celery flavour. But they really took off in the 1960s. The top flavours of the swinging sixties - cheese & onion and salt & vinegar - are still the most popular today.

I've only just scratched the surface of crisp history. There's a lot more to be discovered. The fate of Smiths Crisps in the 1960s, when the company was taken over by American asset strippers, and the pointless and almost fatal rivalry with Golden Wonder (itself owned by Imperial Tobacco) is a good example of how a British industry was almost destroyed for short-term gains. And over the last fifteen years are have seen the rise of 'artisanal' chips and crisps reinvigorating the savoury snack market. Something to think about when opening the next packet of Port and Cranberry.