Birkman jerked with a start as the old Dodge came to a rest in a lot at the side of the factory, a pre-fab corrugated structure the size of an airplane hangar. There were rusty cars here and there along the muddy clearing that separated the plant from an endless stretch of potato fields. Two young boys, seven or eight, were playing in a mud puddle as the truck pulled up.
“I’ll tell the mukkety-muks you’re here so they can roll out the old red carpet,” Fergus said, draining the last of his Rainier and crushing it against his chest. As he ambled off to the factory, Birkman stretched and looked out the window, toward the kids. I wanted to ask Birkman why I was being left in the dark about the low-fat chips. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. What was the next embarrassment to be piled upon me? Would he paste a ‘kick me’ sign on my back and parade me in front of Crispy’s brass? Would he introduce me as his page? As I got up my nerve to confront him, Birkman turned to me and spoke.
“See those boys, Bill? They’re so happy just to play in the dirt. Maybe they even take little sips from the puddle, making believe it’s a big ice cream soda.” One of the boys jumped in the puddle to splash his friend.
“I’m a relatively young man, Bill. Just forty-eight this year. But I’ve already done a great deal with my life. I’ve traveled around the world a dozen times. Hunted and fished with the greats. I’ve helped to build a successful company after my father’s retirement, though the arena of heavy equipment manufacturing was not my chosen field of endeavor.” The boy who was splashed threw a small mud patty at his friend, striking him in the Adam’s Apple. Soon the two of them were wrestling in the puddle. Birkman sighed and I masked a smile, imagining his chosen field of endeavor as modern dance. I tried to picture him, black lycra clad, pirouetting slowly to the ground in a grisly dance of death to symbolize an oil spill or other environmental disaster.
“Mine has been a full and productive life, Bill,” he continued. “A life, I will say somewhat immodestly, of gaining and sharing wisdom, which is the most a man can ask for.” The boy who caught the mud pie in his Adam’s Apple had his friend in a stranglehold and was holding his face in the puddle for what seemed like a very long time. I began to fumble with the door handle so I could go to the rescue, but the boy in the puddle elbowed his friend in the groin and the two of them rolled out of the puddle. I eased back into my seat.
“Despite all I’ve achieved, Bill, there are times when I long to be young again. To be simple, curious, innocent. To be a boy who can still find wonder in the company of his friends, in the simple but mysterious pleasures of a mud puddle.” The two boys rose to their feet, brushed each other off, and walked arm in arm across the potato field.
“It’s funny, but I never much enjoyed the mud,” I began, but my voice trailed off. Birkman was bearing his heart to me. To me, not to Fergus or the brass at Crispy’s. It’s as if he’d heard my soul, its plaintive little cry for attention. What are low-calorie chips in comparison to the wonders of a mud puddle? The quest for innocence and youth?
I couldn’t help but feel smug as Fergus returned to the truck. “They’re ready for you, boss,” he drawled. “Right over there.” He pointed toward an unmarked door that was propped open with a sack that must hold potatoes.
“Thank you, Fergus,” Birkman said, reaching into his pocket. Much to my surprise, he handed Fergus a small book instead of the accustomed twenty. A miniature version of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. “Christmas is coming, Fergus, and so is winter. I don’t have to tell you that the solstice brings hard times to this desolate landscape. Perhaps this story of sacrifice and love will bring you and yours some comfort this holiday season.”
It was better than a Hallmark card. Fergus, sniffling, tucked the book into the bib of his overalls as we waded through the mud to the door.
Up until that moment, a working food processing plant had only been a dim prospect, a vague concept of brushed steel and high tensile plastic efficiency. I’d briefly reviewed plant blueprints, culled through the brightly illustrated assembly line schematics dotting System Solutions’ bone-dry marketing literature. I could tell you a little about one piece of machinery or another. That the Model CPW-10 Combination Peeler/Washer, for example, propels potatoes airbound in a motion counter to the direction of the ten abrasive rollers, thus facilitating the removal of the peels, which are washed away quickly by the continuous water spray that’s supplied by a series of jets that line the top of the peeling chamber. As for real plant experience, this was a first.
I was slack-jawed as we entered the plant, just upstream from where the Slice Feeder Hopper meters peeled and washed potatoes to the mechanism that rends whole spuds into twenty to twenty-five limp and soggy chips-to-be. Birkman waved nonchalantly to a man in white overalls with broad mutton chop sideburns and a navy blue watchcap who stood across the plant floor by a colossus that could only be what Norm described as ‘the Bins’. He made his way toward a catwalk that would lead him over and around various machinery to the bins, then turned to look back at me. He must have seen the expression of wonder that his own face once wore when his father took him to see the first Systems Solution installation at Grandma Gosling’s, across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland. He smiled. “Putter around a bit, Bill. Then make your way over to the bins. There are a couple of things I want to show you. A few things that, I think, will make you proud you’ve joined the Systems Solutions team.” I gave him the ‘thumbs up’ sign, which he vigorously returned. Before walking away, he added, “Use the catwalks, Bill. And be careful. They’re slippery!” He turned and started off gingerly toward the bins.
I had been picturing this scene in my head since I sat in the Systems’ Solutions waiting room two weeks before, thinking through my responses to as of yet unasked questions. Thumbing through the company’s Annual Report, I came across a photo of the Grandma Gosling fryer across from Birkman’s picture and his greeting, which was scrawled by hand in a rolling iambic pentameter. Below the fryer was a caption describing it as a ‘Cadillac of fryers, operating since 1957 without ever missing a day’s work.’ “Can food processing machinery captivate my interest for more than half an hour?” I wondered, looking at the amorphous golden flow of chips that spilled forth from the fryer. “Is there a future for me in snack foods?”
As I stood before the catwalks, the answer was a resounding, crunching ‘Yes!’
The plant floor at Crispy’s covers an area the size of a football field. The ceilings are forty feet high to accommodate the bins, the catwalks, and a maze of exhaust stacks that ultimately extend through the roof. My first shock was the utter size of the machinery. The Water Removal System, a dryer/vacuum combo that removes excess moisture from the potato slices before they enter the fryer (to help maintain color and texture consistency) is a scant three inches diagonal in the brochure. Here it was fifteen feet long and ten feet high, with enough suction to swallow up bowling balls. The fryer was the length of a bowling alley, and as wide as two. Everything was blown up, distorted, as if a stray radioactive cloud had blown in from Nevada to coat everything in mutating dust. A sweet and slightly nauseating smell permeated the place. It was the frying vegetable oil. The roar of rushing water could be heard over everything. I wondered at its source, then remembered; it was the flume that carries raw potatoes from the storage bins to the processing line, an amusement park-like innovation of water power efficiency.
Recalling the blueprints and diagrams I had hastily reviewed on the plane, the plant layout began to unfold before me in a somewhat sensible order. In the far left corner stood four bins, each of which was capable of holding 32 tons of raw potatoes, which are conveyored in from a trailer truck that’s tilted on a huge hydraulic lift called The Truck Lifter to gravity unload the root crops. Birkman was standing with a few men in overalls, gesticulating toward the bins from a catwalk nearby. Presumably, he was pointing out the advantages of the design’s discharge mechanism. Preaching to the converted, if I ever saw it! Below his catwalk and in front of the bins was a four-foot wide stream; the flume. When the line’s running, potatoes are metered from the bins into the flume for a ride to potato heaven. The flume carries them to the Potato Cleaner, a chamber equipped with wire brushes for scraping excess dirt off the spuds. (I’ve learned since that the Potato Cleaner is the same machine as the Continuous Peeler/Washer, except it’s got brushes instead of abrasive rollers.) Next it’s off on a vibrating conveyor (that operates by electromagnetic force, not belts) to the CPW for peeling and washing. The now denuded spuds take a hard right and hit the Slicer Feeder, which divides the potato flow into three lanes before shooting each line of spuds into the Slicer, a chrome box containing enough sharp edges to spit out hundreds of starchy slices a second. The next stop is the Slice Washer, a kind of washing machine that sprays and rotates the slices to remove excess starch, which when left on, can result in unacceptable coloration. Now the line takes another hard right to the Water Removal System, a Systems Solution patent. Finally, there’s a gentle right to the PC48, the Cadillac (if not the Mercedes!) of potato chip fryers.
As I gazed at the PC48, I wished Birkman were at my side to romance every aspect of this stainless steel leviathan, an industrial hulk that some might easily take for granted. Hundreds of gallons of oil rush through the fryer ever minute, and they flow uniformly, thanks to the subtlety of the Systems Solution multi-inlet/outlet design. A controlled temperature drop from 320 to 280 degrees must be achieved from the time the slices hit the oil to the time they leave the fryer, if color and texture consistency are not to be compromised. This temperature drop is achieved, thanks to the perfect integration of Systems Solutions’ heat exchanger, and nuances of the fryer’s design I cannot even begin to explain. Submerger paddles dip the bobbing chips-to-be under the oil for the optimal cook time – 48 seconds –not a moment more nor less. The same paddles gently hoist the chips out of the fryer at the end of their steamy little swim, on to salting, seasoning, weighing, and ultimately, into the package that laymen the world over recognize as the womb of potato chip creation. These are the PC48’s glamour features, the bread and butter of its design. There are other tidbits for the connoisseur. The spray safety system and automatic shut-off switches. The all-stainless steel construction for decades of rigorous use. The expansion joints that swell and contract, allowing the unit to bounce back after hour upon hour of high temperature application.
The swell of emotions the PC-48 had aroused in me, the scent of the of frying oil and the lingering effects of the Rainiers, all combined to make me woozy. I imagined myself stretched out naked below the fryer, my oily, glistening body enveloped by golden fresh chips at a rate far quicker than I could ever hope to consume them. I staggered slightly in my reverie, and a hand grabbed me firmly by the elbow. “You’ve gotta be careful on the cats, son. Oil particles settle on everything. You’re not careful, you could take a nice tumble. We lost a fella like that a few years back. Right into the old Peeler. Wasn’t pretty.”
I turned around to find a man who might have been Fergus’ twin. He was wearing the same overall/cowboy boot combo. Instead of a cowboy hat, he had a hairnet pulled over his mostly hairless skull. He smiled broadly, and extended a hand. “My name’s Ardnas. My parents wanted a girl, but when I popped out they took ‘Sandra’ and switched it around. Nice to meet you.”
I took his hand, which was unpleasantly oily. “I’m Bill.”
“Sorry about that,” he said, digging into one of his overall’s many pockets and handing me a clean, white hanky. “Managing the cooking oil is one of the hats I wear around here. Sometimes you just gotta dive into it.”
And it seems you have, I thought to myself. “Thanks,” I said to Ardnas, taking the hanky and dabbing at my hand.
“You with the Japanese?” Ardnas asked.
I hesitated for a moment before answering, wondering if Ardnas was trying to goad me into a trade debate that would undoubtedly end with a ‘Buy American!’ tirade. Then, looking across the plant toward the bins, I saw Birkman, towering over a group of seven or eight Japanese men — the same group I had seen earlier admiring the Flying People photo collage. They were nodding attentively at Birkman as he rapped on one of the bins with his fist. “Stainless steel,” I heard him call over the din.
“No sir. I’m with Systems Solutions,” I said, turning back to Ardnas, then gesturing to the line before me. “This is the low-cal chip line, I take it?”
“Heavens no!” he said, wiping a hand across his forehead, which left a sheen. “That’s proprietary. We wouldn’t have our friends from the East in here if that was the case. They’d have us snowed under in low-cal chips before the thaw.”
“Where do you keep that line? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Mr. Crispy keeps it up in the hills,” Ardnas said, gesturing somewhere toward Banff. “It’s his baby, you know. But I guess it’s your boss’s too. You know much about oil?” he asked, winking.
I shook my head, imagining I soon would.
“It’s the lifeblood of the line,” Ardnas said, leaning on the catwalk railing in the direction of the fryer. “3,200 gallons a day, if you count both fryers. The oil must be monitored ‘round the clock. You send good slices swimming through bad oil, you know what you get?”
It was a leading question, but I was on top of it. “Bad chips.”
“Bingo!” he said, slapping an oily hand on my sportsjacket. “Sorry,” he said, rubbing at the spot with another hanky. “Send the dry-cleaning bill to Crispy, and tell him it was oily Ardnas!” He laughed at this and I smiled too, though noticing Birkman and the Japanese consulate drifting away from the bins, I realized I had better get moving too.
Asiren like an upscale car alarm went off on the floor. A red light was flashing near the fryer.
“Salter’s getting low,” Ardnas said, snatching the hanky out of my hand. “Someone slipped up,” he added, turning and striding down the catwalk.
“I thought you handled the oil,” I called after him.
“We don’t have that kind of primadonna attitude around here,” he called over his shoulder. “Potato chips aren’t an individual sport, Bill. They’re a team effort. When one of your teammates punts the ball, you run after it.” With that, he slid down out of sight, into the bowels of the salter.