Food & Drink

Behind the Obsession Over the Mysterious ‘Prison Chips’

prison chips
Chelsea Marotta/Thrillist

A delightful combination of salt and vinegar, barbecue, garlic, onion, and other flavors, The Whole Shabang potato chips live up to their name. The "super-seasoned snacks" -- as proclaimed on the bag -- are indeed full of flavor and are bound to draw any chip connoisseur into its legion of loyal fans. In short, they're some of the best potato chips in existence. But why is it that you've probably never even heard of them?

That's because up until a few years ago they were only available for people with ties to the U.S. correctional system. Those who worked in jails and prisons, the incarcerated, and the people that visited them were the only ones with access.

The Whole Shabang chips are manufactured in Canada and started as one of the offerings from Moon Lodge, a private label brand under the Keefe Group umbrella. The Moon Lodge label is gone, but its parent company is going strong as "the nation’s leading supplier of food products, personal care products, electronics, clothing, technology, telecommunications and software solutions to the correctional market." In terms of flavor, many compare them to the slightly more easily available Ruffles All Dressed, Zapp's Voodoo, or UTZ Carolina Style Barbeque chips. But Whole Shebang chips have been such a huge hit that the formerly incarcerated have created Facebook groups dedicated to their love of the product, and a few entrepreneurial devotees even sold them on eBay to cash in on the supply-demand discrepancy. Some have even joked that they "wanna go back for a couple hours" just to get their hands on a bag or two.

In 2016, the company finally caved to demand and launched an online store to prevent a rise in chip-fueled crime, which led to a series of articles and videos alerting the broader population to the notoriously tasty snacks.

I discovered them through word of mouth. Over the summer, two of my friends hosted "Summer Fridays" at their apartment to take advantage of the relaxed work life many New Yorkers enjoy during the season. The afternoon-turned-evening hangouts often included enjoying a few drinks, having some snacks, catching up about our lives, and partaking in a certain decriminalized substance (and by that I mean cannabis -- sorry mom). It was on one of these occasions that I was first introduced to "prison chips," as they've been called. My friend, who as far as I know has never done any time, had heard of them from yet another.

"Them 'Whole Shabang' chips hit different in the free world"

On that fateful evening, I had already been there for a couple of hours, so a crispy, salty snack was perfect to quell the munchies I had going on at the time. As I went to taste the chips for the first time, I noticed a sweet, vinegary barbecue action filling my nostrils when I put my face up to the bag. I had one bite and immediately my taste buds did somersaults in excitement. We passed the chips around so that everyone could sample the goods, but then three of us gathered on the couch to hoard the rest of the bag for ourselves. The booze and cannabis have made the details of that fateful evening a little hazy, but the chips were unforgettable.

Though I'm sure at least a few people will be compelled to hunt down a bag of chips for themselves, it's important to remember that their target market is the almost 2.3 million people in our country's criminal justice system. And for those eaters, the chips are the ultimate comfort food. After all, the prison system is rife with flaws -- food being no exception. The dearth in both the quality and quantity of food provided to people behind bars forces people in prison to find respite however they can. Whether eaten on their own or used as an ingredient in an inventive prison recipe -- such as a soup, or "chi chi," that's made from instant ramen, hot pickle, spicy sausage, jalapeno squeeze cheese, canned chili, honey, spicy cheese puffs, minute rice, hot sauce, and Whole Shabang chips -- the snacks ease the reality for many in our overpopulated correctional system. "The Whole Shabangs are a ray of sunlight in the very cloudy and drab existence that is prison," one former prisoner shared.

But back to "just" the chips. They are, of course, good -- otherwise I wouldn't spend my time writing about them. I ordered a whole case from the company's website for $18.99 in the name of journalism and won't have any problems eating them all. (Feel free to order some for yourself if you’d like to validate my claims.) Should you feel so inclined, they even come in different varieties -- like "Extreme,” with a bonus kick of heat, and "Crunchies," which look like Cheetos -- for you to try at your own risk.

However, as good as The Whole Shabang chips may be solely on the basis of taste, one's perception of it shifts once outside the confines of a correctional facility. The who, what, where, and why of food consumption all has an impact on our experience of it. Just like eating a pint of ice cream in your underwear on the couch after a bad day isn't the same as enjoying a scoop on a nice summer afternoon, consuming the chips when one has full autonomy over their food choices is different from them being one of the few items to both provide flavor and sate hunger during a jail sentence. Or as one person so deftly put it, "Them 'Whole Shabang' chips hit different in the free world."

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Aaron Hutcherson is a writer, editor, recipe developer, and blogger behind The Hungry Hutch. He's a fan of soul food, whiskey, and intersectionality. Follow his cooking and eating adventures on Instagram and Twitter.