On November 3, 2020, the evening of the 59th American presidential election, I prepared to snack. Anticipating a tense night, I headed to the grocer across the street from my Montreal apartment and bought two bags of Miss Vickie’s chips: jalapeño for my girlfriend, Nour, and a packet of “regular” flavour for me, a boring, weak little man with digestive issues who simply can’t handle the combination of grease and spice without becoming physically ill.
Like many couples, the role that potato chips play in the way we care for one another is not insignificant. In the aftermath of a bad day at work, a particularly rough bout of seasonal depression, or a short-lived argument, the caretaking party might offer to go out and procure a salty snack. “You want some chippies?” one of us will ask the other sympathetically. The answer is almost always yes.
And so, as the election results rolled in excruciatingly slowly, I, a Canadian spectator, consoled myself with sodium. Around midnight, when it had become clear no winner would be declared any time soon, Nour and I gave up periodically refreshing our screens. I put away my remaining half-bag of chips—she had polished hers off a couple hours before—and we both went to sleep.
The next morning, Twitter was filled with election-related dispatches. But it was another trending story that caught my eye: Miss Vickie’s Canada recalls chips for possible glass contamination, read the headline of a CBC article posted by multiple people on my feed. I clicked through.
The story explained that the products had been flagged due to the potential presence of shards of glass. One minor dental injury had been reported. The story listed the flavours and best-before dates of packages affected. I ran to the cupboard and grabbed the remaining chips. Scanning the bag, I frantically tried to locate the best-before date to see whether it was a match. It was. I dropped the package back in the cupboard and closed the door.
The news felt fitting in a year that has stripped Canadians of comforts both big and small. Since the pandemic hit, 2020 has decimated the economy, access to healthcare, cities’ shelter systems. It has robbed us of the ability to visit ailing relatives, hang out at friends’ houses, hug our loved ones. And now it has come for our chips.
Canada—the country that invented #stormchips when social media users in the Maritimes began posting pictures of their stockpiled crisps ahead of winter blizzards—now found itself unable to trust one of its favourite snacks during the most punishing metaphorical storm many of its citizens had lived through.
Et tu, Vickie?
For someone who may have swallowed shards of glass, I felt surprisingly calm. Calm was out of character. Historically, the sound of a neighbour’s smoke alarm going off has been enough to send me spiralling into imagining worst-case evacuation scenarios. But 2020 was draining me of my capacity to register threats.
A Google search for “can humans eat glass without dying?” confirmed that if either of us had consumed a shard big enough to harm us, we’d likely have realized it the night before while we were chewing. By this point, the Forbidden Chips were still in the cupboard, and I was miles away at my kitchen-table-turned-work-from-home-desk. At first, simple laziness prevented me from getting up a second time to throw them away.
Throughout the morning, though, the glass chips called to me. I posted online, half-jokingly, about craving a bite. Don’t eat them! my best friend texted me almost immediately. Then, a few minutes later: Like really...don’t.
But I’m a millennial. Part of the same generation seized by the confounding and uncontrollable urge to eat (or at least joke about eating) Tide Pods. We’re a generation defined by economic and environmental insecurity, so resigned to the doomed status of the world we’re inheriting that many of us have grown fluent in the creation of memes about wanting to die.
We’re living in an era of accelerationism—capitalism has escalated so intensely that it, along with society more broadly, is collapsing in on itself. Years we once categorized as “dumpster fires” for their dizzying instability, we now look back on fondly as simpler times. After all, what’s a video or two of folks swallowing blobs of laundry detergent on social media when we’ve grown used to watching thousands protesting the need to wear a mask during a deadly pandemic?
The year 2020 started with unceded Wet’suwet’en land coming under violent attack, marked its mid-point with a slate of high-profile police murders of Black citizens, and has ended with a lethal second wave of Covid-19. Against this backdrop,flirting with death or danger on our own terms feels almost like relief. To fall victim to something as outrageous as a Tide Pod or eating glass when sickness and death are normalized feels almost like mercy.
It’s not just millennials. Our collective mental health has taken a cross-generational, pandemic-related hit this year, multiple studies and surveys have shown. A Statistics Canada survey of about forty-six thousand Canadians found that 52 percent of respondents said their mental health had declined since physical distancing began, and 88 percent reported feeling at least one symptom of anxiety in the previous two weeks. A survey by Oxfam Canada released in June 2020 found that 71 percent of women reported feeling more anxious, depressed, isolated or overworked as a result of taking on extra care work due to Covid-19. Essentially, these stats confirm what most of us already knew to be true: people are struggling right now.
By mid-afternoon, I gave in, gingerly pulling a handful of chips from the remaining half-bag. Squinting at the crystals on the chips’ surface, I decided they looked more salt-like than glass-like and took a bite.
A guilty cycle started. I’d eat a few chips, stop myself, return them to the cupboard promising myself I would throw them in the compost “later.” Then I’d be back the next hour for another couple bites. I knew the chips probably wouldn’t actually harm me. But I also understood how fundamentally stupid it would feel to have to seek medical attention after knowingly consuming recalled snacks.
I stopped only after Nour had a handful. She spent the next forty-five minutes coughing incessantly. “I feel like there’s GLASS in my THROAT,” she yelled from her desk in the other room. “Ziya. GLASS.” There wasn’t, and I knew it, but a game of chicken stops being fun when one of you is genuinely scared. We left the chips in the cupboard.
How shards of glass ended up in bags of chips in the first place is, as of press time, still a mystery. I contacted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which was tasked with investigating the debacle. While the agency confirmed that only one injury had been reported in association with the consumption of the snack, it revealed no other details. If I wanted copies of documents pertaining to their inspection or reports, the kindly media relations staffer told me, I was free to fill out an access to information request.
In other words, to find out more, I would have to pay money to submit a request to a government agency—one which only responds to about 55 percent of the queries it receives within the first thirty days. The irony of having to do so in order to get reliable information regarding a public health concern, and in the midst of a pandemic nonetheless, was not lost on me.
A few days after the recall, I was reading in bed when Nour turned to me. “I need to tell you something,” she said, her face serious.
I felt my breath catch as I silently raced through the list of potential catastrophes she might be about to reveal. Was someone we knew ill? Was Nour? Had months of quarantining together left her feeling sick of me?
“I’ll be honest with you,” she confessed. “I ate the rest of the glass chips.”
Ziya Jones is a writer, editor and journalism instructor. They have survived 2020 by quarantining in Montreal with their nice girlfriend and their three horrible, beautiful cats.Their last piece for Maisonneuve was “On the Lam” (Issue 68).