Listen Dara Moskowitz Grundahl tells MPR's Steven John about America's best tortilla chip
Sep 1, 2011
Who has the best supermarket corn-chips in these, the great United States, land founded on corn pone, corn cakes, corn dogs, and planted sea to shining sea with bristly, amber waves of corn?
It's a favorite parlor game for the food-obsessed, gather a lot of chips, and try them out. Critics usually settle on Xochitl chips, which have won Bon Appetit Magazine's taste-test, NBC's Super Bowl taste-test, and others. If you judge by popularity, Tostitos are the best loved American chip, with the biggest share of the US market, according to the Snack Food Association, some reports estimate Frito-Lay sells more than a $1.5 billion of Tostitos a year.
But hooey and hogwash, I say. The best chips in the USA are made right here in Minnesota, and critics don't know about them because they're all devoured in the world between the Twin Cities and Blue Earth, and Americans can't get $1.5 billion worth because they come from a single family farm, a mere 700 acres north of Welcome, Minnesota. The chips? From Whole Grain Milling Co.
Whole Grain Milling is an organic family farm with a mill built on the property, they grow everything they make (not just corn, but oats, spelt, and a variety of other grains.) The owners are Doug and Lin Hilgendorf, a couple who run the farm with some of their sons. Doug Hilgendorf grew up in the area, and was one of the early adopters in the area for organic farming, the land was certified organic in 1989. (Hildgendorf actually started out as an ordinary farmer, it was his family's land, but after the family had spent some years trying out the new breeds of inputs, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and so on, the family didn't like what it was doing to their soil-health, so they decided to go back to how things had been before, that is, they decided to go organic. Remember that before the 1950's most farms were what we now call "organic". Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR ate only organics!)
As you might expect from family farmers who are passionate about their soil and farm's health, the Hilgendorfs are equally interested in the health of people. To that end they started growing a special sort of corn that is high in lysine, an amino acid that corn typically lacks.
Of course, students of food and food history will recall that ordinary corn doesn't have all 9 of the amino acids the body needs for a complete protein, which is why native people traditionally paired them with beans. If you eat a diet of only regular corn you will eventually develop kwashiorkor, a disease of protein deficiency.
Plant breeders looking to combat world hunger came up with a high-lysine corn that provides a full vegetarian protein, but its not as efficient a producer as other higher yielding corn varieties, and eventually, Lin Hilgendorf told me, Monsanto bought the only seed company that was still making it and ended production. So the Hilgendorfs actually went out and hired another seed breeder to develop a new high-lysine corn just for them, as far as they know they're the only people in the country growing this sort of corn and making corn-chips out of them.
Now, I'm not sure if the reason Whole Grain Milling Company's chips are so good is the variety of high-protein corn, the way the Hilgendorfs grow it or the way they mill it, but this is one extraordinarily spectacular chip.
It's got great depth of flavor, it reminds me of an essay in the different delicious aspects of corn, it's got some of the flavor of a corn-pancake, it's has corn's-on-the-cob's sweetness, and also the slightly roasted flavor of the crust of corn-bread. To this critic's palate it stands head and shoulders above all the other corn-chips in the country.
And I'm prepared to prove it. Gather three bags of chips, Whole Grain Milling Co.'s yellow corn chips, a bag of America's popular favorite, Tostitos, and a bag of America's critical favorite, Xochitl (pronounced so-cheel.) (I found all three at the Uptown Minneapolis Lunds.) It's like comparing paper clips to Porsches. That's some chip.
Whole Grain Milling Company has a list of many of the places you may purchase their chips on their website.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly, and a five time James Beard Award winner.