Spudding Romance

Written by Dominic Armato Category: People Issue: March 2015
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Years after selling her Miss Vickie’s chips brand to Frito-Lay, Vickie Kerr invites the world back into her kitchen.

“Pretend this is a potato.”

Vickie Kerr sits across the table,   holding a huge olive between her fingertips. Chatting over lunch, the  Scottsdale resident lights up when asked how potatoes are planted.

“If you cut this up so there’s a sprout on each piece, that’s your seed. They’re called seed potatoes.”

Better known to the world as Miss Vickie, Kerr made her name as Canada’s famed potato chip entrepreneur, but moments like this are when she seems most at ease. Long retired from the snack chip trade, Kerr recently returned to the culinary spotlight with a new cookbook. Every chapter of her life has found her in an educator’s role. One gets the sense this is not an accident.

Born and raised in Montreal, Kerr met and married her husband, Bill, while in college studying English and early childhood education. They operated a hotel in Canada for a time, but the pair soon pined for fairer climes. “Bill told me to find the place that had the most sunshine,” Kerr says.

They moved to Sedona – just in time for the epic flooding of the late ‘70s. This complicated their plans to develop property in Arizona, so they drew on Bill’s background, returning to Ontario to start a potato farm. For a self-described “city girl,” this was extreme culture shock for Kerr: “I thought life on a farm was going to be nice and relaxing. I had no idea what kind of work would be involved.”

She quickly learned that running a farmhouse was no small task, even when she wasn’t helping in the field. “The other farm women told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t learn how to drive the tractor, or you’ll be asked to,’” she remembers.

But Kerr did. She spent a decade raising potatoes in the field while raising a family in the kitchen. She developed her potato chip recipe to teach her four children about healthy eating. Concerned about hydrogenated oils and preservatives in commercial chips, Kerr fed the family homemade ones, using only fresh potatoes, pure peanut oil and sea salt.

Premium potato chips were unheard of when Kerr launched Miss Vickie’s in 1987. But despite their higher price, her healthful chips dared to taste like potatoes, quickly cultivating a ravenous fan base. Soon, Bill’s potato-growing couldn’t keep up with Vickie’s chip-making, and in six years she went from personally delivering bags of chips to local stores to running three facilities, operating around the clock and filling 40-50 delivery trucks daily.

With far-flung demand came logistical headaches, so Kerr approached Frito-Lay to propose a distribution deal. When Frito-Lay offered to purchase the business outright, the family sold Miss Vickie’s for an undisclosed amount and returned to Arizona, settling in the Valley in 1993. The chips continued to thrive under Frito-Lay, eventually becoming Canada’s third-largest potato chip brand (behind Lay’s and Ruffles) and capturing approximately 5 percent of the Canadian market.

Kerr was proud to see her chips on shelves in the U.S. years later, still using her original recipe. “It made my heart leap a little bit,” she says. Kerr even buys them sometimes. “It’s faster than making them. They taste delicious to me, and I’m a chip aficionado.”

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 Retired from the chip business, Kerr had a professional legacy, proceeds from the sale, a beautiful family, and the Arizona sun. Sadly, in 1997, she lost Bill in a car accident.

Kerr raised four teenagers on her own, yet still proved incapable of resting on her laurels. While living in Canada, she and Bill frequently vacationed in Mexico, and developed a love and respect for the culture. Now, with time to travel, Kerr returned to Mexico to learn Spanish, but soon found herself back in her natural role: “I went down there to learn Spanish, but what I learned was there were so many people who wanted to learn English.”

Inspired, she launched the Arizona Language Center (arizonalanguagecenter.com) in 2007, offering courses in English as a second language, and Spanish for professionals and teachers. The academy has since grown to include translation and interpretation services, and TEFL certification for those who wish to teach English internationally. Kerr’s daughter, Angela, has assumed much of the academy’s administrative duties, freeing Kerr to work on a project that has brought her full circle.

Miss Vickie’s Kitchen is a collection of the kind of simple, heartwarming family recipes Kerr prepared on the farm, like French Canadian Pea Soup, Grandma Kerr’s Brownies, and yes, her famous potato chips. Shared memories, like Kerr’s humorous account of her hard-earned triumph over scratch pie crust, are as much about family as they are about food. The cookbook is Kerr’s way of teaching her children about their culinary heritage, teaching novices how to be comfortable in the kitchen, and teaching herself how to best remember her time on the farm with Bill.

“When I was creating the recipes for dishes that my husband loved to eat, it brought back a whole lot of memories for me. No matter how many years go by, I miss my husband every day, and it was very helpful to be able to turn it into something joyful.”

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 Miss Vickie’s Tater Tips

You probably knew that one, but here are some potato facts from Miss Vickie that
you might not know:
Now popular around the world, potatoes are indigenous to Peru.

Potato chips are made from specifically cultivated potato varieties, called “chip-stock,” and are typically round and white. They are processed right out of the field in summer, or harvested in fall and stored over the winter for year-round potato chip production.

Potatoes are a source of many vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and B complex. One potato has more potassium than a banana.

Eat with the skins on for the potato’s natural fiber. Most of the nutrients are just under the skin.

Potatoes are 80 percent water, and should be stored in a cool, dark, humid location to avoid shrinkage.

Green skin on a potato is caused by exposure to light. Store potatoes in the dark and remove the green, bitter-tasting skin before cooking.

Storing potatoes in the refrigerator will make them gray or black when cooked.