The Story of the Pencil, I Mean, Potato Chip

Leonard Read’s classic economics essay I, Pencil tells the story of  a simple pencil. By tracing the far flung and complex origins of this seemingly trivial device, Read’s parable teaches a powerful lesson: that the unfettered, distributed wisdom of the market trumps the abilities of any centralized controller or regulator.

“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.”

While I appreciate Read’s political point, the reason I enjoy his essay is not so much for the political message, but for the point that there is a fascinating world of complexity, skill, and wisdom behind even apparently simple and trivial things.

Much undeserved abuse has been heaped on Pepsi of late as a result of the ScienceBlogs debacle. But one criticism of their “Food Frontiers” blog has some merit: it’s been a bit dry and boring. So in the spirit of helping out another blog, I have a modest suggestion to offer the folks at Food Frontiers. Get someone over at Frito-Lay to write “The Story of the Potato Chip” in analogy to Leonard Read’s “I Pencil.” Here are some ideas:

Idaho is so famous for its potatoes, the slogan "Famous Potatoes" has long been standard on Idaho license plates. Either that or the Idaho Potato Commission has a lot of pull with the Idaho DMV. Source: State of Idaho, DMV.

Begin with the humble potato. Having been raised in Idaho where worship of the tuber is taken to unique heights, I absorbed some basic potato lore by osmosis. From its South American origins, the potato spread to become a staple food crop worldwide. To what extent are Pepsi scientists or their professional colleagues in the potato industry involved in improving the potato through selective breeding or direct genetic manipulation? The Irish potato famine played an epic and tragic role in history. What research is under way to treat blight and prevent other such diseases from devastating our potato crops?

The manufacture of potato chips is also a rigorous science. Before I became a physicist, I earned a degree in Industrial Engineering. One of the highlights of my education was a trip to a Frito-Lay plant. [Full disclosure – I was shamelessly bribed by Frito-Lay personnel who handed out complimentary bags of “Cool Ranch” flavored nacho chips – and boy did they taste good compared to dorm food!] I was impressed with the antiseptic cleanliness of the place – and particularly with the clever machines that take a tubular roll of packaging, crimp one end, fill it with chips, seal the other other end, and presto, another bag of chips is born. How about a video? There’s also a good deal of food chemistry that could be discussed, from the oil used to fry the potato slices to the new “low sodium” salt recently introduced in Lays potato chips. What kind of oil is used and how is it made? What are the key factors in optimizing the cooking process? How do you make that packaging? What the optimal air-chip ratio in the bag to avoid breakage? What are the challenges in implementing a distribution network to get from the potato to the chip to the shelf in a minimum of time?

I think some scientists fail to understand that successfully implementing a complicated manufacturing process requires a diligence and  attention to detail every bit as exacting as Darwin examining his barnacles (and way more exacting than Mendel counting his peas, depending on which side of the Fisher-Mendel controversy you take). Food Frontiers could be made more interesting by examining the art and science of potato chips, and by conveying the deep science and intricate processes necessary to make a potato chip come out just right.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *