As a little girl, Meneko Spigner McBeth was never allowed to eat wasabi, as her grandmother said it was too spicy.
Now the Japanese condiment is a key ingredient in her chip flavor, wasabi-ginger, which is a finalist in Frito-Lay’s “Do Us A Flavor” competition.
The Temple University Hospital medical-surgical nurse said it wasn’t until college that she discovered her favorite flavor combination of wasabi and ginger, a perfect accompaniment for the sushi rolls she grew up eating.
“When I first tried [wasabi], I fell in love,” McBeth said. “I didn’t try ginger until later, but then I tried it with the wasabi, and I fell in love with the combination.”
McBeth’s grandmother, Sayoko Wilson, was born in Kobe, Japan, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 with McBeth’s grandfather, a soldier in the American Army, and McBeth’s mother, who was a newborn at the time.
McBeth said that when her grandmother came to the states, she was introduced to another style of cooking that was quite different from what she was accustomed to in Japan.
“[My grandparents] moved to my grandfather’s hometown in Pittsburgh, and his mother taught her how to cook soul food, which she mastered quickly,” McBeth said. “My grandmother would celebrate holidays by cooking both traditional Japanese and soul food dishes for our family.”
On these occasions, Wilson would make McBeth and the other children in her family “special sushi rolls,” usually with fried egg and cucumber.
“It was not the kind of version you could get at a sushi restaurant,” McBeth said.
Though McBeth admits she has never been able to make rolls quite like Wilson, she said this childhood favorite is what sparked the idea for a kettle-cooked wasabi-ginger chip after she saw an advertisement for the July 2013 contest.
“I found out about [the Lay’s competition] in the last edition [of it],” McBeth said. “But I didn’t know about it until voting time, so I said to myself that if they have it again next year, I’m going to try.”
Exactly one year later, McBeth found out that her chip flavor would vie for taste buds across the country.
This past July, McBeth joined three other finalists, Matt Allen, Chad Scott and Julia Stanley-Metz, for “finalist orientation” at Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. While there, McBeth and the other contestants got to tour the factory, meet the chefs who created their “inspiration dishes” and sample the new flavors for the first time.
“I was overwhelmed by how good the flavor of my chip came across,” McBeth said. “I was truly blown away – it is an amazing chip and slightly addictive once you get to taste them.”
The finalists were required to keep their statuses in the competition hidden from friends and family until July 16, when an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America revealed the four remaining flavors.
“We were really excited, especially after we saw ‘Good Morning America’ and the [anchor] was like, ‘Wow, this is really good,’ compared to how she reacted to the other ones,” Karema Brahbam, a colleague of McBeth’s, said. “She wasn’t allowed to tell us, so we only knew two days before to tune in, and we were really surprised.”
McBeth said her coworkers and family were excited to spread the word and get people to vote to save the flavor with any medium they could. People shared their favorites on the “Do Us A Flavor” website and via Twitter, Instagram or text message.
“We went into a patient’s room, all of us, and turned the T.V. on, and that’s when we found out everything,” Kaity Heron, McBeth’s coworker said. “She looked adorable, so we were screaming and later that week she was on a bunch of different local networks.”
After her string of television appearances, McBeth delivered five boxes of her wasabi ginger chips to her fellow nurses for a taste test. They immediately started spreading the word.
“Every hashtag counts as a vote, so we were hashtagging pictures of our kids, normal pictures, but with the ‘savewasabi’ hashtag,” Heron said. “We’ve been trying to get as many people to vote as we can, on Instagram – with posting Facebook statuses, everything.”
The voting process, which ends on Oct. 18, will seal the fate of the finalists. The contestant whose chip receives the most votes will win $1 million, while the three other finalists will be awarded $50,000.
“I would try not to let it change my life too much, other than paying off my house,” McBeth said of the possibility of winning the million dollars. “I will definitely still be going to work.”
As a mother of three young girls, Ingenue, 8, Ilania, 4, and Ileigh, 2, McBeth said the money would also help prepare her family for future expenses.
“[The money] would probably be the best thing that could happen to us,” McBeth said. “It would definitely help us save for my girls’ college tuition.”
There is one thing McBeth says she will treat herself to if kettle cooked wasabi ginger becomes Lay’s newest flavor.
“If I did win, I would treat myself to just one splurge – a sports car,” McBeth said. “I spend all my time in a big minivan, even on days without my girls.”
“I would love to have a car just for me,” she said, laughing.
Alexa Bricker can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @alexa_bricker17