How Flamin' Hot Cheetos Became a Cultural Sensation
Maybe their self-proclaimed inventor, Richard Montañez, did lie about his role. What matters most is how this fiery snack has been repurposed and reinterpreted by legions of fans.
Richard Montañez, the self-proclaimed inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, has a memoir out this week called Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive. It's also being made into a movie by actress and producer Eva Longoria.
But last month, the Los Angeles Times published allegations that Montañez fabricated his role in the snack's creation.
"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market," Frito-Lay said in a statement. "We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market."
Whether or not the Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin story is a legend, what matters most is how this fiery snack has been embraced, repurposed, and re-interpreted by legions of fans.
These puffy and pungent snacks have been featured in rap songs, YouTube challenges, TikTok cooking videos, clothing, jewelry, and a variety of food dishes with roots all over the world. Singer Katy Perry dressed up as a Flamin' Hot Cheeto for Halloween in 2014.
This fan culture helped make Flamin' Hot Cheetos resilient to attacks by food regulators who object to artificial dyes and high-calorie cornmeal.
They're also a culinary phenomenon. "Either before school or after school you were going to get a bag of chips and the only one you were going to get was Flamin' Hot," says Tirsa Farah, co-owner and chef at Tirsa's Mexican Cafe in Los Angeles, California. Farah's menu features Flamin' Hot Cheetos in sopes, nachos, and esquites. "It's not just a flavor—it's a memory, it's an occasion. You just flash back to all the times you ate Flamin' Hot."
Bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos appeared on American store shelves in the early '90s. They came to symbolize the poor eating habits of America's youth. The panic intensified with the rise of social media. There were claims that kids were showing up at doctors' offices with heartburn and red stool.
YouTube creators like Matt Stonie mocked the calorie intake concerns of school administrators and dietitians—perhaps unintentionally—with Flamin' Hot Cheetos challenges where contestants try to eat as many as they can in 10 minutes.
Mexicana YouTube creator Wendy, from the Wendy's Eating Show channel, made a video in 2018 where she added Flamin' Hot Cheetos to her sushi and took part in a Korean YouTube trend called mukbang: videos where someone eats food and talks to the audience about it.
"You guys want to know why I picked these sushi rolls? Because they have cream cheese in the middle and Hot Cheetos and cream cheese also go together like peanut butter and jam," Wendy explains.
The way fans are able to engage with and fuse cultures together make Flamin' Hot Cheetos deeply American. Those flavors combine into something new, surprising, and better practically every single day.
"You can be as different as you want to be, or non-traditional as you want to be, and still make delicious, yummy food," says Farah. "It's just the different chip."
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Zach Weissmueller and Detrick. Graphics by Detrick.
Music: Turn Up by Monako, TipToes by Myuu, Shibuya by Bad Snacks, The Beacon by Zachariah Hickman, Fundy by Rew.
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