Have you noticed how hard it's gotten to buy Cornnuts lately? Not barbecue, ranch or chili picante. Just plain Cornnuts. Here's another stumper: Why do snack crackers and potato chips come in as many flavors as mutual funds? For snackaholics who think salt is a sugar substitute, inquiring minds want to know.
Once upon a time there was the unassuming Cornnut. Made from corn but with the consistency of salt-encrusted nuts, Cornnuts taste like those half-popped pop corn kernels found at the bottom of the bowl, a delicacy to be savored like the olive at the end of a martini. As noted on the Cornnuts Web site <www.cornnuts.com>, "Cornnuts are a toasted corn snack that are seasoned to perfection with a surprising amount of flavor and crunch in every piece." But if they are "seasoned to perfection," how come they had to create six more "rad" flavors, including red hot, taco, barbecue, chili picante, nacho cheese and ranch?
This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that red hot, taco, barbecue, chili picante, nacho cheese and ranch have crowded off the shelves what is now being called "original" (at least they had the sense not to call it "classic"). Convenience stores that used to buy a crate of regular Cornnuts now buy a crate of assorted flavors. They run out of regular Cornnuts first because no one wants to eat chili picante Cornnuts. But the store isn't going to buy more plain Cornnuts until it unloads its chili picante, nacho cheese and taco Cornnuts. Viola, no plain Cornnuts.
Cornnuts is owned by the Microsoft of snack foods, Nabisco <www.nabisco.com>. Nabisco makes both cookies and crackers, the difference being that the former is primarily a sugar delivery device and the latter is for salt. Which may explain why Nabisco once merged with a company that makes delivery devices for tobacco, R.J. Reynolds, and is now being bought by another big tobacco company, Philip Morris, which also owns Kraft Foods.
The cookie industry seems to get it -- if you want to create a new flavor cookie you create a new cookie, not fig flavored Oreos. Crackers are another story. The saltine cracker -- so named for the sound it makes when bitten into -- was invented by Josiah Bent Bakery in 1801. Crackers were sold out of barrels until 1898, when Adolphus Green, president of the newly formed National Biscuit Company, created the Uneeda Biscuit, the first cracker packaged in cardboard.
During World War I, Nabisco made hardtack biscuits for the troops, and in 1928 it bought the Shredded Wheat Company, which began in 1882 when chronic indigestion sufferer Henry Drushel Perky created a cereal out of boiled whole wheat. Based on what another Nabisco Web site, "Nabiscoworld" <www.nabiscoworld.com>, calls the "whole wheat biscuit theory," Perky invented the Triscuit in 1895 and founded the Shredded Wheat Co. in 1901.
In 1928, the company began to toast and butter its whole wheat crackers. Next came vegetable oil and finally the coup de grace, "sprinkled with a little salt." Ah, but they just couldn't leave well enough alone, and now Triscuits come in different varieties and sizes. There's reduced fat and low sodium, deli-style, garden herb and French onion. And if you can find it, "original." A similar dilution has occurred with Nabisco's other brands, like its varieties of Ritz crackers, Planters nuts, A.1. steak sauces and Grey Poupon mustards. C'mon. How can there be more than one A.1. flavor?
The Apple Computer of cookies and crackers is Sunshine Biscuits, <www.keebler.com/nutrition/sunshine/sun_home.htm> started in 1902 by two brothers, Jacob and Joseph Loose, and industrialist John A. Wiles. Along with Krispy saltine crackers, Hi Ho butter crackers and the incomparable Cheez-It, Sunshine produced America's first cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookie, Hydrox, named after the elements that make up water -- hydrogen and oxygen. Oreos may sell the most cookies and be easier to separate before eating. But when it comes to dipping in milk, nothing dissolves like a Hydrox.
Despite its healthy name, in 1966 Sunshine Biscuits was acquired by The American Tobacco Co. In 1996 it was bought by an even older bakery started in 1853 by Philadelphian Godfrey Keebler. But by then Keebler was owned by United Biscuits Co., a British food maker. Nevertheless, Keebler <www.keebler.com> cookies and crackers continue to be made by elves employed at Hollow Tree bakery.
If there is an Intel to the snack industry it would be Frito-Lay <www.frito-lay.com>, which has over half of the domestic chip market. Potato and corn chips, that is. In 1938, San Antonian Elmer Doolin started selling the first Anglo corn chip, which he called Fritos. Made from corn masa or dough, which was used for centuries as bread by Mexicans, he bought the recipe for $100 and soon became the dominant provider of corn chips for the Southwest United States. That same year, H.W. Lay bought a potato chip plant in Atlanta and grew it into one of the largest snack food companies in the Southeast. In 1961, Frito and Lay merged into Frito-Lay, which in 1965 merged with Pepsi-Cola into PepsiCo. Frito-Lay also owns Rold Gold, which sells a lot of pretzels.
Unlike Cornnuts and Triscuits, it must be acknowledged that great strides have been made since the "classic" Lay's potato chip. For example, in 1958 Lay introduced Ruffles, which had ridges, making possible an entire new industry -- dip. (Before Ruffles, the only chip you could dip was a Freeto, and about the only thing you could dip it into was Frito-Lay Bean Dip.)
The advent of barbecue potato chips was another step forward, not to mention Chee-tos, Doritos and Sunchips. The larger and thicker "deli-style" potato chips are also an improvement, although the jury is still out on chips made from the fat substitute Olean.
Flavored potato chips are cool. Still, I prefer
my salt unfiltered.