Potato Chips
Gary Fincke

Except for potato chips, my mother never bought anything at the grocery store that wasn’t on sale.

One week she’d come home with six boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and four boxes of elbow macaroni, all but one of each stashed together on the shelf in the hallway guest closet. Butter, milk, and cheese came to our refrigerator in marked-down oversized packages and cartons. The meat for our dinners was determined by ten cents off a pound of pork chops, five cents off hamburger, fifteen cents off cube steak or frozen fish.

She clipped every newspaper coupon for staples. Our toilet paper varied from sale to sale, twenty-four rolls of Charmin nearly smothering eight bars of Ivory soap beside a pile of threadbare towels in the bathroom closet. And downstairs, in the damp root cellar beneath our front porch, were shelves arranged by sales on canned peaches, apricots, grapefruit sections, tuna, French cut green beans, and creamed corn. One can of Dole pineapple sections, the remnant of an earlier eight-can binge, would sit forlornly beside six bright new cans of A&P house brand pineapple.

But there was only one brand of potato chips that satisfied my mother—Quinlan’s—and I was as glad for that as I was unhappy to learn it was Puffed Rice and not Cocoa Puffs that was on sale when she set down a bag full of five discounted boxes.

Before I turned ten, she occasionally tested Wise and Bachman’s and Lay’s, deciding that there were too many dark ones (Wise), too many broken pieces (Bachman’s) or too many that lacked sufficient salt (Lay’s). When she rejected all of them “once and for all,” I was happy because I loved Quinlan’s as much as she did. They were thin and light and wonderfully greasy, deep fried in palm oil years before anyone but people my mother called “the fussy” worried about cholesterol. Above all, they were so heavily salted that after a few minutes of gorging, I could feel my lips puckering into ridges I’d have to lick in order to keep them from cracking.

If all the problematic ingredients, trans fat included, were printed on those bags, we didn’t read them. Of course my mother admitted that potato chips weren’t good for anybody, but this tiny luxury was such a pleasure, and she seldom humored herself in any other way, that she claimed it wouldn’t hurt to have one little sin. For my mother, chips were like cigarettes, something to indulge in no matter their long-term consequences, all of which were uncertain. After all, she said, there were plenty of healthy looking eighty-year-old smokers around, weren’t there?

When my homework was done, my mother and I would open a fresh twenty-ounce bag and sit by side on the couch to watch dramas on television, most often the plays that were on Studio One. The shows were live, something she thought special even though the original scripts often ended with my mother saying, “I don’t get it, Gary. Did you get it?” because the stories finished with at least a bit of ambivalence.

If we missed Studio One, my mother busy with housework or exhausted from working in my father’s bakery, we had chips to eat while we watched quiz shows like $64,000 Question or Twenty-One, answering just enough of the easy questions to make us believe we could win the big prize if we studied up.

Those shows were just getting started when my father left for work. My sister, even though she was older, went to bed at ten o’clock because she didn’t want to stay up late to waste her time with television. “You can catch up tomorrow night,” my mother would say to me, tearing open a brand-new bag or taking the clip off a half-eaten one.

In fact, my father and my sister didn’t even eat potato chips, content with the marked-down Macintosh apples or the seed-infested, stringy tangerines that seemed to be perpetually on sale.

Good. I didn’t mind sharing the ice cream that arrived in two-gallon cartons, which didn’t fit in the upstairs refrigerator freezer and only came in chocolate or vanilla. I didn’t care if my sister drank more than I did from the fourth consecutive family-size can of Hawaiian Punch.

But I was happy that my mother hoarded those chips, stuffing the half-eaten bags behind empty casserole dishes or inside the baking pan that was only used for Thanksgiving turkeys or Easter hams. I sometimes had to spend fifteen minutes trying to find the bag, and I’d have to memorize exactly how it was placed and how tightly rolled up it was before I took the largest handful I could without making a detectable difference. There was never a bag so nearly empty I couldn’t take some. If my mother and I were that close to the bottom, we’d finish them and lick our fingers to add one last delight before she threw away the package.

Even as we stuffed ourselves, my mother told me we were eating in moderation. There was even denial because we could eat only one bag per week. Shopping was done on Wednesdays, as measured and regular as other household chores—laundry (Monday), ironing (Tuesday) house cleaning (Thursday). We always had to make do until the following Wednesday, and that routine made us feel, for one hour, two nights a week, as if we were celebrating salt-filled holidays.

But soon we had the bag emptied by Friday night because the year I turned thirteen we started watching The Untouchables on Thursday night and The Twilight Zone on Friday. My mother thought Robert Stack was rugged and handsome, and even if there was no end of criminals for Eliot Ness to bring to justice, she always knew how things turned out. Likewise for The Twilight Zone, which delighted her by pulling a surprise near the end, but one that wasn’t confusing.

The problem was how far from the next Wednesday we were without any chips in the house. She wasn’t going to buy a second bag. Not ever. If we wanted to have chips for Peter Gunn or Mr. Lucky—private detective shows she said she watched because, as she would tell me, “You love them so much,” — she was going to have to make them herself. She already owned a deep fryer that she used for chicken and breaded shrimp, and now she purchased a vegetable slicer that turned a potato into a wonderful plate of incredibly thin slices. She dropped those potatoes into the bubbling grease, and we stayed in the kitchen while they cooked, the room smelling like the kitchens of restaurants my father called “greasy spoons.”

My mother watched the stove partly because there was a chance all that hot grease would ignite, but mostly to make sure she got the potatoes just right. A light tan, just enough to turn them crisp and no more. “As good as Quinlan’s,” she would say, laying them out to drain on old newspaper like she did for bacon strips on Sundays, and then she’d shake salt onto them until they were coated. There’d be enough for a bowl full, fewer than we’d eat from a bag, but they were so rich and salty we didn’t care. Peter Gunn only lasted for half an hour, so there was hardly any time to finish the chips before the plot wrapped up. And having them every third week—another self-imposed schedule she honored—meant we could imagine self-discipline even as we managed to add an extra night of chips more than once a month.

When I was sixteen, my mother went for a physical because Pennsylvania had a new law that required one for driver’s license renewal. She’d been suffering from headaches for years, and when the doctor took her blood pressure, he was so alarmed by the numbers that he had her admitted to a hospital. A stroke, he said, was imminent. It was a miracle she was still on her feet.

Her hospital stay lasted two days. Once the prescribed medicine kicked in, her blood pressure fell to the ordinary range of high and they released her. She joked about her “scores” with friends so they could marvel, and before too long she was down to high/normal. The biggest problem was that right there, on the top of the list of dietary things to do, was “No salt.”

Dinners were easy. The rest of us could add salt while my mother watched. She seldom bought processed food, and she made her own soup. But now there were no chips in the grocery bag with six boxes of Farina that I would add chocolate syrup to in order to gag down during the second straight month of eating it for breakfast.

For weeks, I checked all of her hiding places, and each one stayed empty. The deep fryer stood spotless and forlorn. By the second month I bought my own bag of Quinlan’s. I had a driver’s license by then. I worked from 10:30 to 5:30 on Friday nights in my father’s bakery for $1.25 an hour, and I could afford to indulge myself.

By the second month I smuggled potato chips into the house and kept them in my room. By now I’d given up watching television, and I ate them while I listened to rock music for hours on my tiny clock radio. This happened three or four times, because shortly thereafter my mother brought home a bag of chips with the groceries. “For you,” she said, “because I know how much you love them.”

“I’ll just have a few,” she said. “Doctor’s orders.”

They weren’t hidden anymore. Held together by plastic clips, the opened bags sat on a shelf beside whatever cereal was stockpiled. I stuffed myself on Wednesday nights when my mother was out of the house for choir practice, and I didn’t complain when I could tell she’d snuck a few.

And so it went until I went off to college. She waited for my vacations to bring home a bag. She didn’t say anything about her blood pressure, and I could tell, when I tasted dinner, that the food was already salted. But by the end of my sophomore year in college my father had closed the bakery, in part because of declining business, but also because my mother wasn’t able to stand on her feet all day to sell what he baked.

When I was married and bought my own chips, no longer loyal to Quinlan’s, my mother would sit in my kitchen to talk, reaching inside the bag I had from time to time, always saying “Just a few.” I never heard my father object, and when I began to buy new brands that were rippled or kettle cooked, she never commented except once, when she said, “I think Quinlan’s might be out of business.”

When I visited her house there were always chips. “I knew you were coming,” she’d say. There were a variety of brands now, all of them on sale, the price marked down with a sticker on the bag, but she said she still only bought them one at a time. She was taking four kinds of medicine for her blood pressure and her heart. As always, before my father carved the Thanksgiving turkey, she picked the salted skin off one side and handed part of it to me before she devoured the rest. “It’s almost as good as chips,” she said, and I agreed, coming back into the kitchen during dinner to pick off whatever crispy strips of skin remained.

When, in her fifties, she was out of breath from modest exercise and in her sixties, out of breath from walking to the mailbox and back, she kept eating chips because “why stop now?” Twenty-five years younger, I was already slowing down. Before my fortieth birthday, I made myself begin to wait two weeks between bags of chips. I stopped automatically salting food. It seemed healthy to only buy two bags of chips a month and to only eat deep fried food at restaurants.

My mother never had the stroke that once seemed imminent, but she did have congestive heart failure. When her organs began to shut down for good, her kidneys were the first to go. A few days before she died in her sleep at home, she wrote me a letter and had my father walk it out to the mailbox for delivery. Near its end she wrote, “I’ve never felt so nauseous”—a sentence I read after I returned from her funeral, because that letter arrived two days after she died.

And now? Twenty years later I compare brands of potato chips for the percentage of fat per serving. For the past five years I’ve refused the kinds that contain trans fat and have given up my favorite brand for one that seems less dangerous. And I exercise regularly, believing in the penance of sweating profusely four times per week.

Like a man who limits himself to five cigarettes a day as a way of minimizing his chances for serious illness, I’ve stuck to my diet of one bag every two weeks.

With exceptions.

For those, I use my mother’s excuse of thrift. This week there are two bags of chips on the kitchen counter because the sale was “Buy one, get one free.” “Forty percent less fat than regular chips,” the bag says, rationalizing those two bags into the fat-equivalent of one for me. The day I bought them I emptied half a bag with a turkey sandwich—no mayo, no oil—rationalizing again.

Except for those television shows accompanied by potato chips, I never sat with my mother to be entertained. Such behavior was the same as “doing nothing,” and when those few shows were over and the potato chips gone, there was work to be done. My mother was quick to criticize the laziness of others, mine so much included that I was embarrassed to be caught watching television at other times by myself.

None of my three children seem to crave potato chips, so I don’t have my mother’s excuse of buying for their visits. Instead, they buy chips for me when I visit, and by now I understand that they want me to indulge myself because it somehow softens my workaholic nature. When I feed my face in their living rooms and on their decks, it’s easy to remember that my mother was at her warmest when she gave in to the small pleasure of potato chips. And there’s always the self-satisfaction of pushing the bag away at last, showing that I can make myself stop while I lick my fingers one at a time, relishing the joy of salt and grease.

Gary Fincke has published thirty-four books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction, most recently The Darkness Call, a collection of personal essays that won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose (Pleiades Press, 2018) and The Infinity Room, which won the Wheelbarrow Books Prize for Established Poets (Michigan State, 2019). He has recently retired as the Charles Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

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