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In Pennsylvania, A Junk Food Junket

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2001; Page E01

Who says you can't have potato chips for breakfast? Not Herr's, the snack food behemoth based in lovely little Nottingham, Pa., just an hour north of Baltimore. With the town's stretches of farmland and horse-and-buggy crossing signs, I thought the company's factory would stand out like a black smear against the pale blue sky. Not so. In fact, I located it only by following one of Herr's trucks, which in this town are more ubiquitous than police cars.

I was on a junk food quest. I'd had my fill of organic, low-cholesterol, fat-free food served on a recycled paper plate. My eyes were blurry from reading too many dietary labels, wondering if phenylalanine would cause me to sprout horns. Basically, I was having a health food breakdown.

My cure, thankfully, was not far away: Southeast Pennsylvania is a bastion of snack food factories, with tours of the facilities and, of course, free samples. So off I went, skipping my soy milk and twig cereal one morning to spend two junk food-jammed days without any guilt or concern about what those do-gooders at Fresh Fields were having for lunch.

Herr's was founded by Jim Stauffer Herr, who bought the potato chip company in 1946 and eventually settled in Nottingham because, according to the short film that kicks off the company tour, it was part of God's plan. So was eating a tray of chips before noon -- but not until I had learned about pretzels, cheese curls and Funyuns (which, by the way, are not the trashy cousin of the onion ring but are actually puffed-up dehydrated potato flakes).

Our guide was a scruffy lad named Andrew, and our gang of seven children and two sets of parents, plus the odd grandparent, was called the "Red Hot Potato" group. We visited the pretzel room, where workers sliced blocks of dough into rods or squeezed them through twist-shape molds, then baked them at 500 degrees. And the corn room, where piles of Funyuns rose like ant hills, before rubber-gloved workers boxed the snacks by hand.

"At some point in the future, they will be replaced by automatic packers," Andrew explained about the human boxers, quickly adding that Herr's has a "no layoff" policy.

In the potato chip wing, I watched X-ray machines scan the boxed products for brown or green-edged chips, fried clusters or clumps of seasonings, ejecting the undesirables. I also witnessed the chip-making process from birth (raw taters) to death (crispy, greasy, eatable chips).

"This the best part, look, look," said a dad to his meanderring knee-high daughter.

Donning a peaked paper hat, Andrew disappeared into the deafening factory floor and emerged with a tray of just-fried chips. It took six minutes to make these chips, and less than half that for us to lick the tray clean.

Fingertips greasy and stomach grumblings quieted, we were deposited at the gift shop and given two bags of free snacks. A call rang out for the "BBQ Chip" group to line up for the 11 o'clock tour. It was time to move on.

Snack Secrets: Rejected potato chips are sent to Herr's Angus farm down the road, where they are mixed into the cows' feed. Some chip companies also send their rejects to dog-food companies.

Townie Tips: If you start craving (God forbid!) healthful produce, Chester County is dotted with roadside stands and wineries. If you're still in tour mode, you can take a spin through QVC's studio in West Chester.

In York, I had a Proustian moment. The scent of Stauffer's fresh-baked animal crackers transported me back to kindergarten class, specifically to quiet time with milk and cookies.

The baked-goods factory, established in 1871, sits at the end of a residential street; sadly, it is not open for tours, but if you stand in the parking lot and take a deep whiff, you can almost see -- and taste -- the animal crackers browning in the oven.

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