The US State Known As The 'Potato Chip Capital Of The World'

Everyone loves a good potato chip, but in Pennsylvania, they take it to the next level. Their passion for the salty snack is so strong that the state's unofficial nickname is the "potato chip capital of the world." But more specifically, there is a "beltline" in the southern part of the state where potato chips reign supreme, according to NPR. Primarily consisting of Lancaster and York counties, the area has been wildly successful in the snack production industry, which NPR attributes to its hard-working Pennsylvania Dutch population and vicinity to major east coast cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In fact, the town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, and several counties around it are the biggest producers of potato chips in the world, per Atlas Obscura. But potato chips are only part of the reason food production has become a staple of the region. There is a long history of snacking in the state.

Before the potato chip, there was the pretzel

Crispy potato chips weren't the first snack food to be enjoyed throughout Pennsylvania. NPR reports that snack foods' popularity began with pretzels in the area around Hanover, Pennsylvania, where German-speaking immigrants settled and farming was dominant.

Settled by the industrialist Pennsylvania Dutch, the area originally became known for its hard pretzels. The snack food was the descendent of the pretzels that were first made in medieval Europe, per NPR. But in Pennsylvania, hard pretzels became an easy food item to mass produce and sell. The love of pretzels and the popularity of snack food opened the door for potato chips to be made in Pennsylvania Dutch land, according to Wired. While pretzels may have come to Pennsylvania from Europe, potato chips came to the state from upstate New York. The land proved to be suitable for potato growing, Atlas Obscura states. And with the snacking culture already well-established in the state (think chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania), potato chips were not only embraced, but they also became a major point of pride.

Small and large manufacturers

Both big, nationally distributed brands, as well as smaller, locally sold companies, have their potato chips filling grocery store aisles in Pennsylvania, per Wired. One of the most-beloved brands is Utz, which makes such flavors as salt and vinegar, red hot, sour cream and onion, and honey barbecue. The potato chip company began in 1921 in the Hanover, Pennsylvania, kitchen of William and Salie Utz. It now offers several brands, including Bachman, Zapp's, Dirty, Snikiddy, Boulder Canyon, and TGI Fridays Snacks. To this day, the company is still family owned and operated. (Side note: Utz's hometown of Hanover may sound familiar. It's also the location of the internationally distributed Snyder's of Hanover, a hard pretzel maker, per NPR).

Utz, along with two other potato chip makers from Pennsylvania, Herr's and Wise, were able to achieve national distribution for their products, according to Atlas Obscura. Other companies, Kay And Ray's, Martin's, Bickel's, Troyer, and Gibbles, remained regional. This southern region of Pennsylvania remains committed to local potato chip makers, says Atlas Obscura, explaining that major national brands like Frito-Lay are not as prominently displayed in local grocery stores.

Unique cooking process

While potato chips made in the "potato chip capital" may come in a wide range of flavors, including the trendy dill pickle flavor, one of the most popular is what made Pennsylvania Dutch potato chips famous in the first place. Chips made in the southern region of Pennsylvania were famous for being fried in lard, according to NPR. As such, the potato chips were not only packed with flavor, they possessed the desirable crunchy texture. Several companies continue to make their potato chips by frying them in animal fat. Utz sells the much-loved variety called Grandma Utz's Handcooked Potato Chips, which is fried in pork fat, reports NPR.

Besides being cooked in animal fat, Utz also makes its potato chips with potatoes that have been rinsed, leaving sugar and starch on the chips, resulting in a strong potato flavor (via Atlas Obscura). Other brands have characteristics that set them apart, such as Troyer, which is the only potato chip company in the United States to grow their potatoes on their property. Bags of potato chips made by Kay And Ray's contain only dark potato chips, resulting from using potatoes with more sugar content. After they're fried in hot oil, they become dark and caramelized.

Where to purchase Pennsylvania potato chips

Found in grocery and convenience stores nationwide, it's fairly easy for an out-of-stater to get their hands on the big-name Pennsylvania potato brands — and many companies like Utz also have an online store. But should you find yourself in Pennsylvania, make sure to stop at a local store for the local snack foods. Atlas Obscura describes the convenience store culture in Pennsylvania as a unique experience.

In the Keystone State, two popular convenience stores, Wawa and Sheetz, primarily sell local snack food products but without any fanfare — it's just the way they have always stocked their shelves, per Atlas Obscura. It's the same at grocery stores where the three major Pennsylvanian potato chip makers (Herr's, Utz, and Wise) are joined by "microchippers" like Hartley's. For those wishing to travel around Pennsylvania in pursuit of the best potato chips, PA Eats has created a "Potato Chip Trail" that stretches around central and southern Pennsylvania with stops at local factories and stores.