Potato Shortage? Let the Chips Fall Where They May

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Like everyone else in the world, I am a big fan of potato chips – particularly Lay’s, especially since they started doing all their chips in non-trans-fat sunflower oil, which gives them a kind of smoothly nutty flavor that I find completely addictive.

This week, when I went to my local King Soopers looking to pick up a couple of bags of Lay’s barbecue chips, I found the shelves virtually bare. This happens periodically in my neighborhood. Every time there’s a big sporting event, the threat of natural disaster (tornado, flood, rainstorm, hail of toads, whatever) or even something really good on TV, the store will sell out of potato chips like there’s a rumor of weed being hidden in the bags. This time, though, it was something more serious. Serious enough that the store management had gone to the trouble of hanging signs from the shelves explaining the shocking lack of deep-fried potato products. It read as follows:

“Due to a shortage of ‘chipper’ potatoes in the Midwest, some potato chip items may be temporarily out of stock. Please look for this item to return soon. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patronage.”

I, of course, immediately stole one of the signs and went home to inform Laura that the end-times truly had drawn nigh. I mean, I can put up with a lot of things. Economy in the toilet, gas at four bucks a gallon, wars and rumors of wars on the front page. To quote the good doctors Stantz, Spengler and Venkman from Ghostbusters, fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria! I’m cool with all that. Frankly, the 24-hour news cycle and too much late-night cruising around the high end of the cable dial have more or less numbed me to all that. But a fucking potato shortage? As an Irishman and a gastronaut, I consider that something straight out of my nightmares.

So I did what any right-thinking American would do when faced with such a catastrophe. I put in a call to the United States Potato Board to find out just what was going on, and whether I should start investing in potato futures and shotguns.

One weird thing I learned about the Potato Board right off the bat: It’s located in Denver. And not just in Denver, but right in my neighborhood, at 7555 East Hampden Avenue. This immediately made me feel more confident in the future because should the worst happen, I’ll know just where to go. I mean, this is the Potato Board, for God’s sake. If anyone’s going to be sitting on a secret stash of russets and baby reds when the world falls apart, it’s gonna be the Potato Board, right?

Second weird thing I learned? This just happens to be the week when the Potato Board is holding its big yearly meeting -- meaning that there was really no one in the office able to handle a catastrophe in the offing. The woman at the front desk asked me who I was and what I wanted (in tones that made it clear that the Potato Board was not accustomed to receiving calls from wild-eyed Micks spouting doomsday warnings -- or from anyone else, really), told me that that not many people were around because of the meeting, but that she’d put me through to Meredith. “That’s the place to start,” she said. “I’ll connect you.”

“Meredith” turned out to be Meredith Myers, who does PR for the Potato Board. And Meredith immediately understood what a catastrophic problem this was, leaping into action like some kind of potato-based PR super-heroine. She told me that this was the second call she’d gotten about this today (making it very obvious that two calls on any one subject on the same day was considered HUGE by the Potato Board), took down my contact information and said she’d get back to me the minute she found out anything.

I waited pensively, considering whether or not to go out and stock up on what remained of the potato-chip supply in my neighborhood, but didn’t end up having time. Five minutes later (which, I gotta say, is, like record time for any PR person), Meredith called me back just to let me know that she’d been working the phones, sending out e-mails and trying to get to the bottom of this. “I’m not sure yet how widespread this is,” she told me, laughing nervously. “I think it’s kind of funny that you’re the one calling me about this and not the other way around, but I’ve put out the question now and I’ll keep on getting information. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”

“Excellent,” I told her. “I’ll have my phone on all night. Call any time.” I really wanted to add and God have mercy on us all, but restrained myself. As an atheist, I am sadly short on dramatic things to say in times of crisis without turning into a hypocrite -- a fact that has always pissed me off just a little.

So I waited, with mounting fear, until my phone buzzed.

“Jason? Meredith. I think I have an answer for you.”

“Okay,” I said. “Hit me.”

“I’m so glad to know this,” she said, “but apparently, demand for chips spikes during a recessionary period. And there’s been a big demand for chips lately, which has led to this chipper shortage.”

(FYI: “chipper” potatoes are potatoes specially grown for the potato chip and french fry-makin’ industries. They are thinner-skinned, dryer, smaller, rounder and contain less starch than normal potatoes, and have been bred -- not genetically engineered -- for these characteristics.)

“The good news is,” Meredith continued, “there’s a crop in the ground now, and in some areas it’s being harvested now. So this shortage should be short-lived.”

I breathed a sigh of relief that must’ve been audible over the phone, because Myers assured me, “It’s not quite the travesty, the disaster, we thought it was.” And I immediately felt better knowing that the good people at the Potato Board had my back and were watching out for me. Myers also told me that if I wanted to keep up on any potato-related news, I could do so easily. Believe it or not, the United States Potato Board has its own blog, located at potatounderground.com, where Meredith Myers (and others) write expansively about potatoes and their uses. I’ll bet she’s working on a chip-shortage blog post right now.

I’m hoping that the next time a crisis like this comes up, Myers and Team Potato will be on top of it -- standing vigil from their underground Fortress of Solitude and protecting us mere mortals from the threat of a potato-less existence. I know I’ll sleep better at night knowing that someone is out there manning the potato watchtowers. And now, I’m sure you will, too. – Jason Sheehan

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