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By Tom Palen 

When the Chips Go Down


December 10, 2022

The other day I overheard two ladies' conversation in a restaurant. They were discussing (gossiping) the possible consequences of a third person's actions. One of the ladies used the term, when the chips are down, which refers to a difficult situation. It seemed to me she used the idiom out of context. Perhaps she meant to say, let the chips fall where they may, meaning to allow events to unfold naturally and accept what occurs.

I couldn't correct her without seeming like I was eavesdropping on their conversation, which I was, but I didn't want to make the moment awkward. Nor could I criticize her error as I’ve done the same thing.

Sometimes I'll use a word, then ask myself, "What does that really mean?" Then I'll question if people, in general, are using the word correctly. For example, this week, Melissa and I traveled to South Carolina. We stopped to grab a Subway sandwich.

We would share one twelve-inch sub. "Order whatever you want, and I'll eat half," Melissa said. So I went inside while Melissa took our dog, Nova Mae, for a walk.

I told the sandwich maker, "I'd like a foot-long black forest ham on wheat bread, with pepper jack cheese, please."

The guy sliced the bread lengthwise, then folded the thin slices of meat, laying them methodically on the bun. Next, he placed cheese triangles on top of the ham, turning every other piece to fit them like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. "Would you like it toasted," he asked.

"Yes, please," I replied.

He pulled our sandwich from the toaster oven, sliding it off the wire rack onto the prep table in front of the condiments, "What would you like on your sandwich?"

"Run it through the garden," I said. "Easy on the jalapenos, and hold the guacamole." With each topping he added, my anticipation grew. I became a play-by-play coach. "Hold the onion on her half, please," I said, adding, "extra pickles are always appreciated." Our sandwich grew taller as it reached the end of the line of stainless-steel tubs.

The sandwich technician and I were in sync. He looked up, but before he could ask, I said, "One thin line of yellow mustard, please." He nodded and gave the sandwich an even line from one end to the other. Next, he used his knife to hold the veggies in place as he folded the top over and cut the sandwich in half.

Before I could ask, he offered, "I'll wrap the two halves separately for you." He wrapped them tightly, then slid the two pieces inside a long, narrow plastic bag.

"Would you like to make it a meal with chips and a drink?" he asked, while I simultaneously said, "Let's make it a meal with chips and a drink." We shared a good laugh over that. This guy was good, so I left a nice tip when I paid my bill at the register.

"Pick any bag of chips you'd like," he said while handing me a paper cup. "I put an X on the side with onions." Because of his attention to detailed service, I would avoid the challenge of figuring out which side was without onions, so I dropped another dollar in the tip jar.

As I looked over the selection of chips on the shelf, I wondered, "Why do they call them chips?" The word chip means a piece cut or broken from the whole.

I understand the potato chip because it is sliced from a whole potato. (Although I question the origins of those chips stacked in the cardboard tube; they’re too perfect.) But then I considered wavy chips. I've never seen a potato with natural ripples. Are these fake chips? What about the triangular-shaped Doritos? Were they cut from a whole Dorito, and what exactly is a Dorito, anyway? I searched the definition.

Dorito is Spanish, meaning little golden things. "These were cut from little golden things? What little golden things?" I was becoming quite suspicious of Doritos and chips in general.

Because Melissa let me choose the sandwich, I thought I'd pick one of her favorite chips; Cheetos. But then I wondered, "Why are these even with the chips?” No matter what the orange cheetah says, Cheetos are not a real 'chip off the ole block’ of cheese." So finally, I settled on Melissa's standard favorite chip, SunChips; the Garden Salsa variety. "Surely these chips are sliced from the actual sun," I said in jest.

Calling them chips (except the potato chip) doesn't make sense to me, but they are tasty. We enjoyed our Subway sandwich with SunChips and returned to the road. The SunChips were so good that the next day Melissa and I found ourselves craving more.

We stopped for a few groceries and bought deli-sliced meats and cheese to make sandwiches. Then, Melissa picked up a large bag of SunChips, Garden Salsa flavored. There's something special about opening a new bag of chips; there is a proper protocol to follow when eating them.

The first chips from the bag are complete and unbroken. Although they taste the same, I find whole chips extra satisfying over broken chips. I wanted to eat more, but Melissa closed the bag. "We're going to save some for later," she said.

"Hmph," I muttered. "Who made you Queen in charge of the chips?" I didn't think she heard me, but I was mistaken. She gave me a stern look, sealed off the bag of SunChips with a clothespin, and tucked them safely in the pocket of her door – far out of my reach. It's probably better that she did so; If no one was there to stop me, I could eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting.

The bag of SunChips came out later that afternoon as a snack. We munched briefly on whole chips; then Melissa sealed the bag again. "Let's save some for lunch tomorrow," she justified.

Before noon the next day, we were both a little hungry but not ready to stop for lunch yet, "Those SunChips would tide us over," I suggested. So, Melissa pulled the bag from her secret stash.

By now, the bag was down to broken and half chips. So we shared those until the bag had only fragments and scraps left. Melissa started to take the bag from me, but I quickly snatched it back, "I'm not done with those," I protested.

"The bag is empty," she declared. But I disagreed. In my mind, all the chips must be consumed before throwing the bag away; anything less is just wasteful.

I reached inside the bag and retrieved more chip pieces with my thumb and two fingers. Then, when I could no longer grab a fair amount of food, I used my thumb and index finger to pinch chip morsels from the crease in the bottom of the sack. "Are you done now?" She asked.

"No," I answered, glancing down inside the bag. "When the chips are down, you do what you gotta do," I laughed, with all puns intended. Then, finally, we came to a red light.

I tapped the outside of the package while we were stopped. Then I leaned the bag at a forty-five-degree angle and tapped it a few more times, causing the remaining chip morsels to gather in one corner. I pulled the top and bottom of the left side of the bag to remove any wrinkles, creating a smooth chute. Then I carefully leaned my head back, tipping the bag into my mouth. I closed my eyes and tapped the outside again. (It's essential to shut my eyelids during this step; otherwise, I could get salt in my eyes.) The final pieces of chip dust slid down the chute and into my mouth. I opened my eyes and smiled. "Now, I am," I said as I munched on those last remnants.

Melissa looked on, asking sarcastically, "Are you sure you don't want to cut the bag open to lick the inside clean?"

"You know I've never thought of that," I said, "but you've given me a new idea."

My wife shook her head, "You're weird. You know that, right?" I looked inside the bag to double-check. It was empty, so I wadded it up. We didn't have a trash bag in the van then, so I held the chip bag in my hand. "The light is green," Melissa said, and I resumed driving.

About an hour later, we pulled into a bar-b-que restaurant parking lot. I assumed there would be a trash can near the front door, so I grabbed the chip bag to dispose of it. I believe Melissa was concerned that I would cut the bag and lick the inside at our table in the restaurant. "You're not taking that empty bag into the restaurant," she said.

"Hey," I replied, "When the chips go down…," (which means something completely different than when the chips are down). I smiled as I intentionally used the idiom out of context; Melissa looked worried. "You're the one who gave me the idea," I justified. Then, for my own safety, I tossed the SunChips bag into the trash can.


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