The material world: Stacks of dollars

Apparently it's a hostessy thing, at some parties, to transfer an intact log of Pringles from tube to serving dish
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's something weird about Pringles chips. The idea is odd, for a start: crisps in a cardboard tube. Then the tube itself: the vaudeville face with rouged cheeks and handlebar moustache, the unidentified floating object, the screeds of small print in five languages that leave you baffled about what's inside. And who is Mr Pringle?

The chips themselves - or more accurately reconstituted potato wafers - are defiantly uncrisplike. They are identical in shape, size and colour, and each has exactly the same stingray curve, so that inside the tube they fit snugly inside each other. Apparently it's a hostessy thing, at some parties, to transfer an intact log of Pringles from tube to serving dish.

But, for all their peculiarity, Pringles have been a great success since they were introduced into the UK in 1991. Last year, we bought nearly 44 million canisters (at about pounds 1.50 a time), making them the fifth biggest seller in snacks and crisps. (The industry classifies Pringles as "snacks".) Indeed, Pringles are the only "premium" snack in the top 10: all the others are cheapies, such as Walkers crisps (the market leader by a huge margin) and Hula Hoops.

Against nature

When you think of designer crisps, you tend to think of things like Kettle Chips, which (according to the bag) are sliced straight from the potato into vats of sunflower oil, and generally try to seem as natural as junk food can be. Pringles have no truck with this.

They were invented in 1968 by Procter & Gamble (there is no Mr Pringle), which still makes them at a factory in Jackson, Tennessee. P&G's research had found people were dissatisfied with their snacks: the greasy feel, the breakage, the speed with which they went stale. The men in white coats came up with the Pringle.

To make Pringles, potatoes are boiled, mashed, dehydrated into flakes, then rehydrated. Acidity regulators, flavour enhancers and so on are added. The dough is rolled out thinly, stamped into circles, and laid individually over "saddles" to give a curve while cooking. The Pringles are packed into tubes, the air is sucked out and replaced with nitrogen, and the canisters, with a shelf life of 18 months, are shipped to 40 countries.

Couch potatoes

The Americans invented crisps (or chips, as they call them) 150 years ago; in Britain we took them to our hearts in 1920 when a Cockney couple, Frank Smith and his wife, started making them at home and selling them in greaseproof bags with a twist of salt. We spend pounds 1.6 billion a year on crisps and snacks, of which (according to a survey by KP Foods) 6 per cent, or pounds 96-million-worth, are eaten as a result of boredom. The habit consumes 12 per cent of the UK potato crop.

Pringles consumers are thought to be slightly older and richer than the average crisp buyer. The UK distributors suspect that a lot of Pringles are eaten in cars (they are the biggest sellers on garage forecourts). The crunchy noise they make must also accompany a lot of video watching: 1.5 per cent of sales come from Blockbuster Video outlets.

The oddness of the packaging must be a result of the brand's internationalism, and as such it may be the way of the future. The pack needs to be accessible (or mystifying) wherever you live and whichever of the five major world languages you recognise. Anyone for Aardappelchips met kaassmaak? Cheez Ums?