In Appreciation of Gardetto's, The Greatest of All Snack Mixes
Earlier this month, a mysterious package arrived on my doorstep. This is not uncommon. Unsolicited foodstuffs arrive with alarming regularity. Sometimes it’s a spice rack. Sometimes it’s 60 bags of potato chips, or a 1-ounce sample of whiskey. Barely, if ever, does a package make me let out an involuntary squeal of delight upon opening. But the minute I saw the label, it happened.
I wasn’t excited because I hadn’t had any Gardetto’s recently. There was probably a half a bag in my pantry at that exact moment. Yet still, I squealed. Audibly. Gardetto’s — the unsung hero of the gas station snack world — had found me. ME!
Well, it wasn’t actually that exciting. The brand didn’t realize that I had been carrying a torch for it since I first got a taste for the stuff in eighth grade, when I housed a bulk-bin bag in Charlie Dietrich’s suburban Michigan basement while watching Dazed and Confused. There’s no way they’d know that the minute they launched their “special request” all-rye-chip bag in 2006, I made a bee-line to my local 7-Eleven and stockpiled those suckers as if I was prepping a bunker for the snack-food apocalypse. Surely, they didn’t know that I can’t travel without them, that they’re my crunchy safety blanket, that every time a flight hits 30,000ft I get a Pavlovian craving for that massive salt punch. This was not Gardetto’s running to me in slow motion across a sandy beach, waiting to embrace me and whisper into my ear “I love you too.”
Nah. They made some new crackers. Crisps, technically. They were pretty good. They tasted like flat, hexagonal breadsticks. The peppercorn ranch ones were fine. The ones sprinkled with Gardetto’s original seasoning were better, mainly because you could put that magical mystery seasoning on a bar of soap and it’d be good. I pondered doing something interesting with them, like crunching them up and making Gardetto’s fried chicken, then realized they were gone and drove to the store to buy a family-sized bag of the Original snack mix. You know, for dinner.
Though stans for Chex -- owned by the same company as Gardetto's -- will take umbrage, for a certain stock of people, Gardetto’s is the king of snack mix. Cheez-It, Utz, and even Reese’s are but pretenders to the throne. The crunch of the all-carb bag is mighty. The seasoning is addictive, a powerful explosion of salt, salt, garlic, and salt -- and apparently dried Worcestershire sauce, onion, baking soda, caraway, and a million chemical-sounding ingredients.The thick, garlic-spiked rye chips are the ideal vessel for various dips and spreads, chief among neon bar cheese and beer cheeses.
That latter point speaks largely to Gardetto’s appeal to the “certain stock” I referred to earlier. By that, I mean Midwesterners like me, the very folks who read “bar cheese” and “beer cheese” and immediately get hungry rather than make a scrunched face and google the words.
Gardetto’s might have an Italian name and roots, but it’s perhaps the most Midwestern of all mainstream snacks. They were founded in Milwaukee. There is not a trace of protein in them, just a shitload of bread. They're the snack you put out if you want your snack table to appear a little fancier, sitting comfortably alongside Sociables and nut-based cocktail mix and assorted pre-cut vegetables with dip. They're the "upscale" snack you can score en route to a gathering by stopping at a Speedway. They are bold and aggressive, yet deeply comforting and relatively milquetoast. They're loud, yes, but not in an abrasive way. They're as much a mouthful of Midwest as anything on the market.
Gardetto’s is a giant bag of Midwestern values and flavors gussied up like something fancy and Italian.
According to the bag -- which, to me, is basically gospel -- the entire thing is based on frugality: John Gardetto used to run a bakery in the 1930s, and made crunchy breadsticks that were too long for the packaging, so he trimmed off the nubs. Not wanting to waste them, he did what any good Depression-era entrepreneur would: He salted the shit out of them, then threw them in a bag with other crunchy bread-type things. It’s the same mentality that leads Midwesterners like me to absolutely refuse to throw out a slice of pizza, opting instead to wrap it in foil and freeze it as expiration draws near: Waste not, want not. Unless what you want would otherwise be waste. In which case, make it something else.
Gardetto’s is a giant bag of Midwestern values and flavors gussied up like something fancy and Italian, and that's their true strengths. It couldn’t be more Midwestern unless a bag showed up on a 4-wheeler with a sixer of Cream Ale, an Aaron Rodgers jersey, and an uncontrollable habit of dropping the word “ope” into every sentence 15 times. Yet it's refined, ubiquitous, and widely accessible. Especially for a snack commonly found in the same aisle as caffeine pills and lottery tickets.
It’s perhaps the sneakiest ambassador of Midwestern eating habits. Not that it’s about to bridge any gaps and get a Californian to suddenly get interested in Cincinnati chili or St. Louis pizza, but it definitely exists on shelves across the nation as a window into carb-heavy Midwestern bar snacking. And for hungry expats looking for something to remind them of home, Gardetto’s is everywhere, offering up that familiar assault of sodium, spice, and carbs that tastes like home. It’s not exactly like finding a Detroit coney in Washington. But it does the trick, especially if there’s soft, orange cheese to be found.
That’s not to say that Gardetto’s hasn’t changed over the years. It ditched its sesame breadstick nubs a while ago. It’s launched a few different varieties, including an Italian Cheese Blend and a mustard pretzel mix (curiously, my constant letters asking for a “Nothin’ But The Nubs” bag go unanswered). Crackers are apparently the new frontier, though even if they just offered up a line of snortable seasoning, I’d be all in.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the snack’s ability to generate excitement when it shows up unexpected, whether that’s in the mail or at a party or in the pantry of a friend who doesn’t realize that the first thing you do when you visit is look through all their drawers. That’s the power of the world’s best snack mix: Even when it tries something new, it still manages to surprise simply by doing what it’s done for almost a century -- make dorks like me squeal for no good reason other than the guarantee of deliciousness.