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.