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Though I have not eaten at TGI Friday’s in years, there is one potent draw that convinces me I should return: They sell a variant of chips fashioned in the likeness of potato skins, and they are called "Tato Skins." These chips are derived from potatoes that are dehydrated, ground up, bleached, and reconstituted so that one side is browned the color of copper and the opposite side as light as the inside of a warm potato. It is then forced into an oblong shape and powdered with synthetic flavored dust—the Tato Skin comes in cheddar & bacon, sour cream & onion, and "original." Apparently, Tato Skins have, at one point, come been offered in a few more—steak & potato, chili & cheese, for example—though I've never had these modified versions.
The coating stenches and stains your hands, but no matter—by measure of the rigorous critical apparatus through which I assess food, the Tato Skin is objectively very good. I would spend 14 hours at TGI Friday's just to eat them. "What’s the best part of the potato? Is it the great-tasting, rich skin? Or perhaps the soft, hearty, flavorful center?" the Tato Skin's current manufacturer, Inventure Foods, asks with a slyly knowing tone. "We can’t decide either, so we use them both in our Tato Skins® chips."
What is perhaps obscured in such descriptors, though, is the fact that these very Tato Skins were produced by another company entirely before the end of the 20th century—Keebler. And in that bygone era, the Tato Skin was much better.
Consider the advertising; it is at once utterly endearing and fodder for nightmares. The interiors of a stop-motion potato, affixed with a Keebler logo, blossom and swell to colossal proportions, breaking through the tuberous crop's epidermis. Steam rises from the potato before we suddenly move to an extreme close-up of a mound of crisps. A bag emerges from the pile.
“Tato skins got [sic] baked potato a-peel,” a man sings, “Cause they’re made with potatoes and skins that are real. Tato skins from Keebler, baked potato appeal!” Seconds later, we learn that a pack of animated, spud-wielding elven laborers has created these—one joyfully mounts a treadmill to peel potatoes, while another taste-tests. The singing man informs us of the varying flavors; cheddar cheese n' bacon, sour cream n' chives, tasty baked potato. The stop-motion potato appears again, this time resembling a piñata teeming with Tato Skins.
The Tato Skin had been developed in 1985 by Miles Willard, a potato innovator of yesteryear famous for creating O-Boisies and Hula Hoops and other snacks derived from dehydrated potatoes. The product was a hit, and Keebler began adding to the Tato Skin canon soon after their introduction to the market.
The 1987 version of this commercial, for example, has the same makeup as its earlier version, with a caveat: a bespectacled Becky comments that they “finally got barbecue flavor, too,” in addition to those aforementioned offerings. Incredible.
The 1989 version, though, deviates from this playbook entirely. We are transported to an agrarian setting where a mother, father, and their son inspect a mobile, seemingly sentient potato. The commercial hews to the rather noxious and condescending stereotypes urbanite advertisers tend to harbor about rural Americans. The same jingle from earlier iterations of the commercial is now sung by a chorus of multiple men, a frightening sound, as a banjo strums energetically. Hm. I like the other potato better.
No commercials for the Keebler Tato Skin from the nineties onward exist in the public domain, which is a shame; that's when I came to know them. I lived steps away from Foodtown, which sold these babies through the late nineties until 2000, when Inventure Foods, then known as Poore Foods (a name it would have until 2006) bought Keebler's Tato Skins and partnered with TGI Friday's to reboot them. The Tato Skin's flavor profile changed; its new owners were less generous with the powder, draining the snack of its original appeal. But sales boomed at TGI Friday's locations, and this new ingredient calculus for the potato skins stuck.
In most corners, Keebler's Tato Skins are remembered so fondly that, in spite of the fact that a readily available but lesser variant of them still floats around the American market, the Keebler Tato Skin is acknowledged as its much better predecessor—even Food52 friend Charlotte Druckman cited her love of their baked potato appeal. I try my best to resist sentimentality when it comes to the junk foods of my childhood; heart disease is a murderous current that runs through my family, after all. But I long for Keebler's Tato Skin, aware it will never return. I know some may imagine that potato skins themselves will suffice. I've never tried real potato skins, actually, but I'm told they're quite good.
Remember Keebler's Tato Skins? Let us know in the comments!