The Salsa Problem

Supermarkets have secret powers. I am convinced of this. Maybe it's in the lighting. Some sort of flicker pattern in the fluorescents that's imperceptible to the eye but received as commandment by the brain.

Maybe it's in the music. An ambient static transmitting instructions to little receivers in the backs of our heads.

Maybe it's in the air. A chemical message gently directing our thoughts from afar.

Shit, maybe it's just voodoo.

Whatever the case, the effect is to render me utterly incapable of making a decision. I lumber around as if in a Percocet-induced stupor, glancing at the shelves in the hope that some sort of answer will emerge. What do I want? What do I need? What do I NOT need? Who actually buys pigs feet?

The supermarkets' motive in this skullduggery, of course, is to keep you off-balance. You make dozens of purchase decisions every time you set foot in their lair, and they want you in a diminished capacity when you do so. Nowhere is this more evident than the cereal aisle, which may as well have warning signs: "If you don't have 15 minutes to spare, just walk away."

The manufactured indecision certainly wasn't helping a few days ago, as I stared for an eternity at the expanse of tortilla chips. The question that plagued me was a familiar one.

Do I really want to embark on another cycle of chips & salsa right now?

See, here's the thing. When you live alone and are the primary snacker of the household, chips & salsa are not a one-time purchase. One does not simply buy a bag of chips and a jar of salsa, enjoy them over the course of a few days, and then walk away from the experience. No sir. The bag/jar purchase represents a commitment. Once you put those items in your basket, you are basically agreeing to eat chips & salsa for the next several weeks — however long it takes you to arrive at a bag/jar equilibrium point.

Because that right there is the essence of the chips & salsa curse. You have a full bag and a full jar. The chips are crunchy, the salsa is tangy, life is good. But then you finish off the salsa while there's still plenty of chips left. So next time you're at the store, you get another jar. But wait, now the chips are gone, and you have all this salsa. You need another bag of chips. That bag easily polishes off the salsa, forcing you to buy more, but the salsa runs out before the chips are gone ...

On and on it goes, until somehow, miraculously, you reach a point where you are using the last of the chips to scoop up the last of the salsa. Too exhausted to celebrate your victory, you glance outside and notice that the leaves have turned brown and are falling. Then you catch sight of yourself in the mirror. What happened to the young man who bought that first bag, that first jar? When did he grow so old?

This wouldn't really be a problem if chips & salsa weren't almost infuriatingly delicious, but they are. Eventually, I forget all about the last saga and begin anew. Only this time, I try to learn from my mistakes, making minor adjustments and experimenting with salsa/chip ratios in the futile hope of finding some common denominator. Sometimes I'll load up each chip with levels of salsa that no God-fearing man should abide, other times I'll pull back on the throttle and barely dab them. The alternative is to eat half a bag of dry, lifeless chips. Or, you know, drink half a jar of salsa.

It would be wonderful if we could appeal to the common decency of chip & salsa manufacturers to work together, and free us from this endless loop. Unfortunately, there is precedent for this sort of thing.

Hot dogs.

As a kid, I listened to my mother gripe about the fact that hot dogs came in packages of six, while buns came in packages of eight, or vice versa. Just as one would switch, the other would parry. Never — not once — were they on the same page. There wasn't a single family we knew that wasn't driven insane by this, especially around the Fourth of July. The whole thing seemed fishier than Pike Place.

Consumer advocacy groups pressured Congress on the issue for years, and in 1986 the Senate held hearings to investigate charges of collusion between the baked goods industry (SIC code 2051) and the sausage-, frankfurter-, and bratwurst-related meats industry (SIC code 2011). Dubbed the "Weenie Roast Hearings" by the media, the proceedings led to a bill that would have required companies on both sides to offer packages of six and eight, with a controversial rider guaranteeing shoppers the right to buy hot dogs & buns à la carte. The bill died in the House, amid accusations that certain Congressmen were, as Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell (D) put it, "suspiciously influenced by those damned wiener people."

Two years later, the Attorney General of Illinois filed suit against Oscar Meyer & Co., in an attempt to turn the hot dog makers against the bun makers and drive a wedge between the two sides. Ramp up the heat on one, the theory went, and sooner or later it will sell out the other. The gambit failed. No amount of legal maneuvering or PR pressure could make them crack. How Oscar Meyer was able to hold out is the subject of several conspiracy theories, almost all of which point to the unseen hand of the Allied Association of Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish Producers — Big Condiment. As the old Chicago saying goes, never go up against the Mustard Barons. Ever.

So basically, there's no way in hell I'm getting any sort of reprieve with my salsa problem. I'm stuck with it. I know that. How long will this next cycle last? Who the hells knows.

But hey, things are looking up. Thanks to the charlie-foxtrot known as our economy, recently acquired banks are anxious to divest themselves of all their branded doodads.

I just scored a fistful of Washington Mutual chip-clips. Bring it on.