Sunday, December 15, 2013

“Munchos Memories”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“I think you can find all the elements that you can find in great literature in mundane experiences.” – Harvey Pekar

Blame it on Ohio.
When I lived in the Empire State, friends would often remark on my own peculiar fascination with oddball bits of everyday life. The label design on a Utica Club beer bottle. An obscure Country & Western ballad no one remembered. The identification tag on an abandoned car, sitting under trees on a hillside outside of town. The smell of newsprint at our local magazine emporium, Mayer’s Smoke Shop.
Coming home only intensified this bent toward everyday glory. I was fascinated by Joe Gall’s Chardon Laundromat. Old vehicles still parked at Ash Motors. The vintage post office, which would soon be decommissioned. And the overflowing bargain record bin at Woolworth’s in Chardon Plaza.
I tended to get “stuck” on random details.
In modern times. this habit has remained strong. A recent example appeared as I was shopping for salty snacks at my local supermarket, an activity that my doctor would certainly not endorse. Among a selection of familiar pretzels and chips was a throwback of sorts. A culinary Coelacanth, like the full-size spare tire once referenced in a Volkswagen commercial.
Munchos, by Frito Lay.
I remembered my first encounter with these potato crisps as a kid in the late 1960’s.  In particular, my memories are of having the snack while staying with my grandparents in Columbus, though that might be imprecise. Information about the crisps is vague on Internet sources. But early commercials were produced by Muppeteer Jim Henson, who later declined to renew his contract. A primitive version of what would become Cookie Monster can be seen crunching through a bag of Munchos, in these early ads.
Henson became famous as part of Sesame Street, which debuted in November, 1969. Munchos potato crisps were overshadowed by Pringles, a similar but more flashy potato chip alternative that had been introduced a few years before by Procter & Gamble.
Pringles were offered in a distinctive tennis-ball can and eventually came in different flavors. Munchos were an oddity for the Frito Lay menu. Under-promoted and nearly forgotten.
But, they survived.
In the modern era, bags of this snack are easily discovered carrying the company “$2 Only” price point boldly emblazoned across the package. Lots of varied opinions exist regarding their value as a snack food. Yet they continue to sell.
In personal terms, Muchos fit my template for fondness. They have been a persistent oddity, like the television program Space: 1999 or AMC automobiles. Who would openly admit to buying the snack? Yet somehow, under cover of darkness, or with clandestine moves meant to conceal their purchase, they still disappear from retailer shelves.
Even noted journalists have addressed this relentless marketplace presence in their writings. Francis Lam of SALON recently described these crisps with verbiage equally crisp as the treats themselves:

“Opening the bag is a subtle but heady experience. the aromatized air puffs forth, the smell of pure, clean deep-fry surrounds you. It’s like how your hair smells the morning after the carnival, that is, if your carnival past took you more toward hanging out by the corndog stands...”

Frito Lay eventually conceded defeat in the category by introducing Stax, in 2003. They were simply an echo of Pringles. But Munchos remain available at most stores.
Perhaps the strongest debate has been over their actual flavor on the palate. Are they potato crisps, as advertised? Maybe part rice cake, corn doodle, air puff or simply reconstituted kitchen crumbs?
Are they new-age healthy, being gluten-free?
Are they a retro fad, appealing to hipsters?
Are they a low-buck crossover for those interested in buying from Frito Lay instead of surrendering to Dan Dee or Troyer Farms? Or Walmart’s iconic Great Value brand?
Whatever their appeal, Munchos continue to survive on the strength of their genuine snackability. It is undeniably easy to eat an entire bag at one sitting. Especially when paired with a light, refreshing old-school beverage such as Miller High Life.
And like the VW spare tire, they offer a satisfying bit of lost culture for those who still remember.

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