The Greatest Thing I Ever Ate: Prawn Cocktail Crisps In The 80s

In the 1980's, Walkers Prawn Cocktail actually tasted of Prawn Cocktail, but some time in the middle of that decade some executive made a devastating decision to completely change the flavour and now it is doesn't have any of the ruddy pinkness, the sensual punch that almost glowed in the packet...
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In the 1980's, Walkers Prawn Cocktail actually tasted of Prawn Cocktail, but some time in the middle of that decade some executive made a devastating decision to completely change the flavour and now it is doesn't have any of the ruddy pinkness, the sensual punch that almost glowed in the packet...

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The dictionary definition of a ‘crisp’ cheapens its sensory wonder and defiles it as a mere ‘snack’. A snack to me is something brief and disposable, a fill-in; to be consumed without thinking about it, a polyethylene experience from which you derive little pleasure just functional accomplishment, a sort of Westlife for the ingestive process.

No, for me, crisps are far more than that. They are a short cut to palate satisfaction in terms of getting to the nitty-gritty of flavour, piquancy and zest without overnight marinades and hours slaving over bubbling pans. They are a gluttonous feast to devour in the loving bosom of the home; a flirtation, a journey, a gratifying indulgence.

Nothing else truly embodies the primitive adventure and discovery of my childhood more than crisps; endless summer days spent idly seeing off bag after bag. I don't know how old I was, but I can recall the day my Mum told me they were actually bad for me; a heart attack in golden, potato-wafer form. This was a crushing blow to a young man with early dreams to promote his crisp-eating skills to the maximum. I had fantasies of joining a travelling circus and delighting the awestruck masses with astonishing speed challenges, and laying down the gauntlet of devouring my own bodyweight before their very eyes. Of course, it would have to be a mixture of a minimum of six personally selected flavours, and, obviously, no Golden Wonder.

Sadly it was not to be, a career based around my insatiable desire to eat crisps was not forthcoming, and the assertion that I could eat crisps until my heart stopped had to be nudged reluctantly back to reality. But not before I had explored the rich vein of flavours and varieties available, even in the 1970's.

I've never been a great fan of fish, but there was something different about Prawn Cocktail, something tangy and erroneously extravagant.

Certainly the 1980's, my teenage years, were my halcyon days for crisp-eating, before guilt and common sense really kicked in. In the early days my Mum would buy me a packet of Monster Munch as a weekly treat, but pretty soon I flew the nest and arrived in the murky world of independent crisp purchasing, where there were no boundaries.

An early preference and still probably my favourite today was the odd and acquired taste of Prawn Cocktail; odd, in that it was an utterly random suggestion for a flavour of crisps, a faintly pretentious middle class hors d’oeuvres, classically bonded to the 1970’s in a George & Mildred Dinner Party kind-of-way. Clearly Seabrooks still lead the field after all these years, but an early contender was Walkers Prawn Cocktail. I've never been a great fan of fish, certainly not in my early teens, but there was something different about Prawn Cocktail, something tangy and erroneously extravagant.

In the 1980's, Walkers Prawn Cocktail actually tasted of Prawn Cocktail, but some time in the middle of that decade some foolish executive made a devastating decision to completely change the flavour and now it is more like Tomato Sauce, and doesn't have any of the ruddy pinkness, the sensual punch that almost glowed in the packet. Somewhere, whoever made that decision will be locked in a darkened room bearing the weight of scornful regrets. I imagine he slid fairly quickly down the ladder at Walkers PLC and now finds himself wandering aimlessly through the wasteland of his previous life, bitter and remorseful at the compulsive mistake that turned his world upside down. Maybe one day I'll track him down to make a short documentary on how he changed my life, and I'll interview him in silhouette because he's too ashamed to face the world. I say "he", because somehow I can't imagine a woman making such a wantonly wicked and callous decision. Having said that, this was done in the midst of Thatcherite Britain and perhaps this is another example of that era’s willing pursuit of inhuman sufferance.

I moved on from this, and have enjoyed many genuinely moving moments eating crisps of all shapes and sizes. Growing into adulthood I took the difficult decision to ration my intake, and therefore reduce the ability for experimentation, based loosely on the assumption that I would not be reducing my beer input, so something had to address the balance, and it wasn’t likely to be an increase in exercise. Such decisions have to be made in life; a "Road to Damascus" moment, that we all face at some point. Of course I still have drunken and/or hungover lapses where I have often found an empty multi-pack bag discarded on the floor, surrounded by its' six devoured offspring. These are difficult times, where you balance the saturated fat content with approximately 30 seconds of taste sensation.

Crisps are the only thing I would shove my four year-old daughter out of the way for, and to be fair she understands that.

In current times I am a huge fan of Kettle Chips because they mean business and don't mince around – somehow they have a Big Daddy aura about them and a quality of taste. Seabrooks still have a simple and winning formula of almost dangerously excessive levels of flavouring, which McCoys try to emulate but never quite match. Walkers just seem to be a sad, diluted version of their former selves, a corporate disaster; plastic, no feelings, no emotion, and this decline, I'm sure, can be traced back to some lab-coated egghead casually meddling with the e-numbers and systematically torpedoing the Prawn Cocktail experience 25 long, taste-deprived years ago.

Kettle chips of course are part of the modern trend for diverse flavours and enormous bags for, wait for it ….."sharing"..........yeah right. Crisps are the only thing I would shove my four year-old daughter out of the way for, and to be fair she understands that; them crisps ain't for sharing, and in a decorative and alluring way she has inherited my single-minded focus for crisp-eating being a purely individual pursuit.

But whilst I am happy to explore new flavours there needs to be a re-dressing of marketing standards. "Farmhouse Wensleydale and Caramalised Onion", is just bloody Cheese 'n Onion. "Scottish Rock Salt and West Country Apple Cider Vinegar" is just Salt 'n Vinegar (with the emphasis on "'n" please, we don't do "and" in crisp circles). Please don't get me started on Ready Salted, or however they try to dress that up nowadays. Ready Salted has never been a ‘flavour’, it’s just a pointless default setting before they add any of the wholesome chemicals that we all love, a complete waste of time, and another reason to harbour a deep mistrust of the colour red.

So there we have it, a life time of carbohydrates and salt in a small packet. They used to cost 10p and now I don't even know what a single, regular-sized bag costs. Crisp manufacturers used to actually fill the bag and satisfy their market, now people like Walkers prefer to concentrate on their hideously tight margins and only allow us to enjoy roughly 40% of the potential contents of the bag.

But life is full of such pitfalls and you have to take the rough with the smooth; balance 40 years of solitary crisp delirium with the corner shop only having Beef Monster Munch and not Pickled Onion. Balance the wonder of your 4 year old daughter sharing your deep love of Seabrooks Prawn Cocktail, with her subsequently stealing the last packet from your multi-bag whilst you're at work...Life is a drag, and crisps are the antidote.

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