The story of Flamin' Hot Cheetos is the story of America. The illegitimate offspring of a cheese puff and a Dorito, the snacks are a triumph of food science. With their finger-staining red pigment, infinite shelf life, sui generis squiggly shape, and well-calibrated esophageal burn, Flamin' Hots flaunt qualities impossible to find in nature, brought into existence by applying advanced technology to frivolous goals.
The creation story of this irresistible snack is quintessentially American, too. Richard Montanez, a longtime janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, California, was watching someone cook corn with butter and chile when inspiration struck: Why not add Mexican spices to the famous corn-based puff? Montanez—who spoke no English—whipped up a test batch, designed some mock packaging, and soon found himself convincing the top brass at the $11 billion subsidiary of PepsiCo to give his idea a shot. It would go on to become the company's top-selling product line.
But this inspiring tale of culinary innovation has an ending that's all too common in America as well. Flamin' Hot Cheetos—especially popular with teenagers—ran afoul of federal nutrition guidelines for foods sold in schools. The delicious snack was eliminated from vending machines in the gigantic Los Angeles Unified School District, as well as in other schools across the country. Pasadena's Jackson Elementary even confiscated the bright orange bags when kids brought them from home. (See "Food Freedom in 2015," page 46.) This miracle of culinary chemistry became a symbol of unhealthy eating—and a target for food nannies everywhere.
People love to fight over food. Anything human beings can digest comes pre-loaded with cultural, biological, and emotional significance, making it perfect fodder for politicians and other scolds who want to start squabbles. From former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's bans on large fountain sodas to the Los Angeles City Council's attempts to zone fast food joints out of low-income neighborhoods, the powerful especially love to dictate the diets of the poor. The results are condescending, with a certain tone-deafness not just to the difficulties of feeding a family on a limited budget, but to cultural differences as well.
As Gustavo Arellano describes in "Drop That Snack!" (page 18), food scolds in Los Angeles are working overtime to take away choices they don't adequately comprehend or appreciate. The targets of their ire make for a varied smorgasbord, from the industrial delights of packaged snack food to the homegrown deliciousness of quesillo cheese and small-batch chorizo sausage.
The snooty are far from immune, as demonstrated by crackdowns on raw milk, superchef Alice Waters' beloved Point Reyes oysters ("Oysters vs. the State," page 66), and wine aged at the bottom of Charleston Harbor ("Illegal Underwater Wine," page 80).
Want to grow your own organic produce on your own land for your own consumption? Too bad, hipster. If you live in Miami Shores Village, Florida, or Ferguson, Missouri, the authorities might make you tear your zucchini and berries out of the ground with threats of daily fines or even imprisonment ("Turf War," page 26).
Still, political skirmishes over snacks shouldn't distract us from the amazing variety on our dinner plates these days. Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's third law states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Jack's fast-growing beanstalk, Snow White's shiny apple, even Cinderella's pumpkin coach are magical manifestations of humanity's abiding obsession with flawless, abundant produce.
Yet when technological advances make those fictional fruits into a reality—dozens of apples perfect enough to tempt any girl with poison at every American grocery store—somehow we do not celebrate. We should. On average, Americans now spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, compared with 40 percent 100 years ago and closer to 30 percent just 50 years ago.
And even the cheapest food is far more delicious than it used to be. There are important packaged snack innovations, of course. But fresh food is constantly being freighted and flown (flown!) around the world to become the staples of the American diet: asparagus in mid-winter, fresh salmon 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, strawberries the size of a baby's fist.
Let's not forget those cream-filled cakes that can wait patiently in your cupboard for a year, sliced meats that stay fresh in vacuum-sealed packages for weeks, and grains that are too cheap to meter. The prospect of such a diet would seem like a fairy story to most eaters even a few decades ago, and it still does in much of the world.
Newt Gingrich likes to tell a story of one of the highest-profile Cold War defections. A Soviet official, under heavy guard, is being ferried from his hotel to the United Nations building when he looks out the window of his car and sees a sidewalk produce stand. The sight of the glistening fruit and vegetables sitting on the street—and no one with a gun anywhere in sight to protect the amazing bounty—convinces him that America is a place of such prosperity, domestic peace, and power that it will certainly triumph in any conflict with hungry, angry Russia. He was right.
With copiousness comes corpulence. The waistlines of Americans—especially poor Americans—often serve as politicians' excuse to meddle with our meals. But legislative and bureaucratic solutions nearly always lag or duplicate existing commercial slimming solutions. If you think government is likely to stumble on the right diet advice, just check out "70 Years of Dubious Federal Food Rules" (page 11).
Where elites once dreamed of unblemished abundance, we now fetishize the flawed, the limited, and the local. Today, there are many who find scalability suspect—alarm bells ring at the prospect that something can be mass produced, shipped in bulk, or stored for long periods. Eaters demand to know the geographical and genetic origins of their apples, even if they aren't being brandished by a suspicious-looking old witch.
The idea of eschewing watermelon in all but the last weeks of summer seems questionable, while skipping the carefully bred seedless varieties in favor of the classic seeded option is clearly downright insane. And New Zealand lamb, shipped over on a slow boat with a low-carbon footprint, is one of life's great delights. But if you want to eat local or eschew the bacteria-destroying power of pasteurization, you're in luck, because there are hundreds of companies out there who want to cater to you. I fail to understand why anyone would want to eliminate genetically modified organisms from their diets, since there is no scientific backing for such a decision (page 16). But enjoy your Chipotle, Luddites! My limit for Flamin' Hot Cheetos is probably one bag per year, but if you want to eat a McDonald's sausage burrito every morning, as columnist Veronique de Rugy does (page 14), carry on!
I may turn up my nose at your raw milk and seriously consider a boycott of Chipotle for catering to anti-science nonsense (if only the guacamole wasn't so good!) but luckily, I don't have to like what you're having for dinner.
Politicians will never be able to resist the siren song of food nannyism, and their meddling will certainly cause inconvenience. But even those Flamin' Hot Cheetos have made their way back into schools, slightly reformulated and repackaged to thwart the politicians' intent. As Iron Chef's Geoffrey Zakarian tells reason's Nick Gillespie on page 38, Americans make great food because "we have the ability here to go into business, go out of business, make mistakes, get back up, and just make it happen. Sometimes we fail marvelously, but failure is part of winning." Never mind the nannies—tastiness will triumph in the end.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Flamin' Hot Cheetos Are the American Dream".