02.04.10

The Snack Critic

When the American food machine turns out a new salty treat, they turn to Jeremy Selwyn for approval. Tali Yaholom on one man’s decade-long odyssey to find the perfect snack.

Jeremy Selwyn’s passion is to find every single snack in America, no matter how obscure or bizarre, and then write about his reaction. Consider this past Monday: After discovering risotto-flavored potato chips manufactured by a relatively unknown company, New York Style, Selwyn brought a bag into his office and urged his co-workers to try some. “Everybody was like, ‘What the heck is that?’” he laughed, but “as it turned out, they were pretty good.” So the chips, described as rice crackers with a Doritos-like flavor will soon become the 4,423rd on Selwyn’s 10-year-old site, Taquitos.net, a compendium of snacks that sound like salty Willie Wonka concoctions: seaweed corn crackers, octopus-flavored potato chips and peanut butter and jelly popcorn, to name a few.

The site started as a solution to a monotonous newspaper job in central Massachusetts, where Selwyn would pass time by buying creative-sounding snacks at a local convenience store. During this time, salt and vinegar- or ketchup-flavored potato chips were “somewhat of a novelty,” and Selwyn quickly became known as the guy who eats weird junk food at 8 in the morning, which turned out well for him, as his friends and colleagues soon began bringing exotic snacks for “the chip guy” to try out. A site was born, that now attracts about 30,000 snack-happy visitors a month, according to Quantcast.

What separates Taquitos.net—named for a Trader Joe’s offering and a Simpsons joke—from most other cult food blogs is everyman appeal, its creator’s eagerness to shove a herb-roasted anchovy-flavored potato chip down his throat. “For people who are adventurous, it’s fun to try different things,” Selwyn says. “It’s fun to see something you couldn’t imagine existed and then eat it.” Selwyn, who goes by “Chief Snacks Officer” when he’s not working his day job as a Web site developer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, finds his craziest-sounding nosh when travelling abroad (England introduced him to Cajun squirrel-flavored potato chips) or visiting Asian grocery stores in Chinatown (home to all things seafood). Snack manufacturers regularly send Selwyn complimentary cases of their newest products and, occasionally, will defensively tweak their recipes to satisfy Selwyn’s criticisms—such was the case of a certain caramel popcorn, which Selwyn complained left too much sugar on his hands.

Snack manufacturers will defensively tweak their recipes to satisfy Selwyn’s criticisms.

Selwyn is careful not to brand himself as any sort of culinary expert, though his site reflects the national obsession with snacking in general, and extreme snacking in particular. “Personally, I have kind of no actual background in food preparation or food science,” he says. “I’m a terrible cook. I really just eat these things as an ordinary snacker and I’m surprised by the number of people who read my reviews who say, ‘You had that one right on,' which isn’t to say everyone agrees with me or I want everyone to agree with me, but I call it as I see it and I’m just aiming at ordinary snackers.”

There is a “sub-industry trying to crusade against snacking,” he adds, but “people are going to eat what they want to eat” and, regardless, “more and more people are willing to experiment.”

Watch: 12 Banned Super Bowl Ads Plus, there’s room for the foodie elite to participate, since snack manufacturers often try recipes incorporating gourmet trends and exotic foreign foods. “It’s whatever the flavors are of the moment [that] tend to get integrated into snacks, whether it’s some ethnic combination or a spice or a food like bacon,” adds Ed Levine, founder of Serious Eats. “When big snack food companies are fighting for shelf space, one way you battle for shelf space is by broadening your line.”

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Tali Yahalom has written for New York, the Atlantic, The Financial Times and USA Today.