If there were a montage of grocery store aisles over the past thirty years, you’d see chips gradually pushing every other product to the suburbs, their dominance threatened only by crackers, precisely because they’re trying to be like chips.
Gaze along the cracker aisle horizon and you’ll find Ritz Toasted Chips, Pepperidge Farm Cracker Chips, and Wheat Thins Toasted Chips, among countless others. You’ll see chip flavors that have no business being in the cracker section: sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, ranch, cheddar, salsa, barbeque, buffalo, and honey mustard.
Clearly, crackers are trying to dethrone chips, but what’s bothersome is that they still want to be thought of as crackers. Yet if they think they’re so delicious with all those flavors, why don’t they go compete in the chip aisle like a soldier? Because they wouldn’t last a day in the chip aisle. Sun Chips and Doritos would kill them.
Wheat Thins are a textbook example of the new cracker/chip pathology. They began their transformation with Hint of Salt and Garden Vegetable crackers, both minor, acceptable forays into flavor, in the sense that their tastes do not overwhelm the cheese placed upon them (more on this later). Then the flavored crackers were introduced, with chip flavors like Zesty Salsa, Chili Cheese, Honey Mustard, and Ranch. What cheese goes on Chili Cheese crackers? Manchego? Roquefort? Probably Pepper Jack.
With these bastardizations, Wheat Thins passed a point of no return, and so it was unsurprising when they completely shed their form as a cracker by creating Toasted Chips, a product which does not contain the word cracker anywhere on the package. We all gave Michael Jordan crap for trying to play baseball, but have mysteriously let Wheat Thins slide.
By its nature, a cracker’s purpose is to be a vehicle for something else, like cheese or a spread of some sort, and not the star of the show, like a chip. That’s why they’re flat. We do end up snacking on plain crackers occasionally, but only because we’re out of cheese and too lazy to buy some. It produces the same vague, miserable feeling you get when eating cereal without milk.
The introduction of chip flavors negates adding cheese, since you would never put a slice of cheese on a Zesty Salsa or cheddar-flavored cracker, at least not if you were raised properly. If a block of cheese arrived at home to find its cracker spouse wearing cheddar cheese flavoring, the cheese would cry, “Well, I guess I’m not needed here.”
And it wouldn’t be, because a chip-flavored cracker is a chip, and should move aisles to be with the rest of its kind. Call me old fashioned, but I like my crackers to taste like crackers.
Wheat Thins and their ilk are not alone in corrupting themselves and trying to copy their sexier cousins. We’ve seen coffee move toward milkshakes, granola bars move towards candy bars, and yogurt move toward ice cream. That’s why you’ve got to respect beef; it doesn’t need anyone.
One could argue that cracker chips are a healthier alternative to regular chips, and that this is reason alone for remaining in the cracker aisle. However, we already have somewhat healthy chips, like baked chips, bean chips, and rice chips (eww), all of them having to compete with juggernauts like Lay’s and Doritos. And cracker chips are not actually healthier than low-fat chips.
Nor does a cracker’s traditional thickness define it against chips, as there are now many thick chips and many thin crackers.
Thus what’s happening is that companies like Nabisco are stealing some of the chip’s audience, and doing so from the luxury of the less competitive cracker section. Chili Cheese Wheat Thins may seem delicious, until you put them on the shelf next to a bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips. Then they’re not so tough. (Chips will ultimately survive the assault from crackers, just as sandwiches survived the assault from Ritz Bitz Sandwiches.)
Besides, this is only happening in one direction. Ruffles and Doritos have shown no interest in producing a cracker, because it would be like an A-list actor doing a reality television show.
The chip-flavored crackers are more chip than cracker and should be separated from the rest of the non-steroid using crackers. Their delusion mirrors our delusion: if we saw flavored crackers in the chip section, we might stop thinking of cracker chips as crackers, or healthier versions of chips. We might realize that sometimes you need to decide between a cracker and a chip, and that trying to have both in one product is morally wrong.
If this novelty-driven craze isn’t slowed, I fear that cracker companies will eventually overreach, arrogantly breaking into other markets like cereal, granola bars, and clothing labels. (I can easily picture Triscuits creating a line of corduroys.)
The cracker bubble will eventually burst and leave thousands without work and even more without places to put their slices of cheese. Not even saltines will be available.
We survived the automotive crisis, but a snack crisis could truly break us as a country. So please, Wheat Thins, I beg of you. Come home.
(And no, I have no idea how Goldfish fits into all this.)
Chason Gordon is a writer whose work regularly appears in Seattle Weekly, City Arts, Splitsider, and Nerve. You may find less of him at @chasongordon and literallyhumor.com.