In its infinite potato-chip-making and marketing wisdom, the Frito-Lay snack behemoth has sifted through entries in their latest Lay’s “Do Us A Flavor” contest (this year’s theme: “Taste of America”), narrowed it down to four finalists, and encouraged We The People to vote for our fave. Plus, there’s the incentive of a shot at winning 10 grand (if you agree to debase yourself on social media and/or agree to receive texts from Frito-Lay), so you don’t even have to eat any! You can just vote for your favorite color bag or region of the country or whatever, which, by the way, Lay’s, thanks for finding a new way to Divide the nation. Don’t we have enough going on?

Since the VOTING TRACKER on the Lay’s site doesn’t allow for the depth of Criticism these products deserve (a scale from “LIKE IT” to “AMAZING!”), I am compelled, as a potato-chip believer, to provide observations of these 7.75- or 8-oz. portions of American Flavor, recorded during my first (and last) encounter with each bag (contains eight servings), available in grocery stores all over America.

KETTLE COOKED GREEKTOWN GYRO: The “Meet the Finalists” Potato Profile or whatever on each bag and the Lay’s site lets us in on the “Flavor Inspiration” behind each contestant’s offering. Here is the first, from Mr. James Wagner of Wichita Falls, Tex.:

There’s a great little Greek place in town that makes the most amazing gyros. The uniquely cooked and flavored meat, covered in tzatziki sauce, onions, lettuce and feta cheese in a fresh pita ... mmm!

Seems like a good idea. Some grease-flavor and some tzatziki sauce? A hint of onion? These are kettle-cooked chips, so they are very crackle-y and crunchy, but they taste like they were soaked in a bowl of vegetable bouillon cubes dissolved in hot-dog water. And the burp-y aftertaste—uurgh, these things revisited me for the rest of the day and the next morning. REVIEW: YUCK. Also, big minus for not having any even remotely associated gyro meat in the ingredients, or at least a flavor. They couldn’t even fake it.

SOUTHERN BISCUITS AND GRAVY: Hailey Green of Noblesville, Ind., drags her family into it:

My Grandma (Nonnie) and Grandpa are from Tennessee, and Nonnie is a walking cookbook full of Southern staples. My absolute favorite dish that she makes is her homemade biscuits & gravy!

The South has enough problems; don’t blame them for these chips, which do indeed taste like gravy, but what does flour gravy taste like? “Flour-and-Salt-Flavored Southern Buttermilk Crumbles” would be a more accurate name. The weight of the chips is the regular-Lay’s thin gauge, and so what happens is they crumble really easily, and so you’re crumb-snatching, and that’s disgusting and depressing. REVIEW: These are salty and creamy, and you would bury your face in an un-crumbled bowlful if they were on offer gratis at a bar where you were doing multi-beers. But again, on the Animal Product front, tossing even one nominal meat/sausage/grease ingredient into this one-bag War of Potato Chip Aggression might have finally yielded a victory for the South.

WAVY WEST COAST TRUFFLE FRIES: These were created by Angie Fu, of Irvine, Calif.:

Every time I see Truffle Fries on the menu, it is the first thing that I order... the aromatic flavor of truffle is mouth-watering!

On the cable-TV cooking shows, anytime somebody’s in trouble, they start putting truffles and shaved truffles and truffle oil on stuff, right? It’s a crutch for the no-talents. Truffle = flavor. These chips look like Sour Cream and Onion Chips that are maybe Organic or Healthy or something. They have that look of under-promising, like THESE ARE PROBABLY NOT GOING TO TASTE TOO HOT. They look dirty, but not in any kinda good Cajun or Martini or Sex way—it’s like they’ve absorbed polluted air or something. They also appear to be flecked with parsley, which imparts a general greenish cast in addition to the general dirt-look.

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Meanwhile, on the inside of the bag (which will also be the name of my new podcast; “Welcome back to THE INSIDE OF THE BAG”), it smells like when you put a whole bunch of vegetable trimmings in the kitchen garbage can and you leave it closed for two days and then you go and open it: fresh Organic Garbage. When you put the Truffle Fries Chips in a bowl and then sniff, they smell so not like anything fun to eat (i.e., like rotting fish guts on a dock in August) that you do not want to eat even just one. They smell so bad they make you not want to eat a potato chip. How do they choose these flavors?

These aren’t real crunchy, either. They have the Wavy Lay’s density, but an unwelcome softness. There’s a salty, strong potato flavor (I KNOW, BUT REALLY, THEY DO HAVE THIS PROMINENTLY) which in other chips can be lost under all the flavor-dusting. This is really a FRIES-tasting potato chip. Zero disgusting aftertaste. In the ingredients department, these chips live up to their product name in that they do indeed contain Truffle, but then it gets weird, because there’s also Duck Fat and Chicken Fat in the bag, who knew? REVIEW: They taste way better than they smell, that’s for sure! I am able to eat more of these! WAVY WEST COAST TRUFFLE FRIES are not as terrible as their name or their odor!

NEW YORK RUEBEN: Jeff Solensky from DuBois, Pa., is the closest thing to a Food Industry pro in this competition:

I work in a restaurant where Reuben sandwiches are a big seller. It reminds me of my upbringing on Long Island, where delis are very prominent.

Right away they hang the name “New York Reuben” on these, so the deck is stacked, because America (the other parts) hates New York, right? Plus, in seventh grade, I almost got my arm broken in gym-class wrestling by a kid named Rueben, and I do not want to taste his name. I guess “DuBois, Pa., Reuben,” or “Long Island Reuben” didn’t play with the Branding Dep’t, and maybe they could’ve gone with “Deli Rueben,” but that would just remind everyone of New York again?

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When you get your snout in the sack of New York Reuben, the aroma of Rye Bread and Sauerkraut is powerful—toxic, even—but there’s not really any hint of Corned Beef, and after tasting these, the disappointment is confirmed upon checking the ingredients for any trace of the arguably implied Sandwich Meat, which I contend you might be tricked into thinking is there as an Active Ingredient.

WINNER: Despite the odor, I think WAVY WEST COAST TRUFFLE FIRES is potatohead-and-shoulders above the rest of this garbage, but I will never again dip my beak into any of these Tastes of America, and I think this year Canada got a better field.

NOTE: All sampling performed out of bags I bought all at the same time at the supermarket from the display pictured above. Yes, it was sort of embarrassing, and I was even checking out at the self-serve scanner thing so I didn’t have to look at a human cashier, judging me. Tasting was done between meals, aka SNACK TIME. The usual testing protocol of CAN I KILL A WHOLE BAG IN ONE SHOT was suspended for this particular “competition” experience, but it is significant to note I did not come anywhere near close to consuming even a third of any bag.

DISCLOSURE: I have never entered this contest, but if they have it next year, I am A FULL BAG in, because I have the winning Flavor Idea. You’ll see, all of you.

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EXTRA HELPING: Here is a podcast containing some of my comments along with those of comedian Jim Meyer, who has a brown belt in snack food.


Joe MacLeod enjoys television, movies, chips, and America. He tweets.