Day 445: The Mighty Cheeto

originally published March 20, 2013

Consider the Cheeto: crisp, yielding, with the audible snap of a thousand tiny hands sharing one unison clap. It lands upon the tongue in a Riverdance of dissolution, its crunchy remnants clip-clopping past the molars in a crumb stampede (a ‘crumpede’ if you will), down the gullet’s hungry waterslide. Its cheesy flavor plants flagpoles in all corners of the mouth, proclaiming its turf for Nation Cheeto, whose president (Chester) demands you forget all you know about cheese flavor, and redefine it under the paradigm of Cheez. And of all the simulated Cheez-beasts on your grocery shelf, Cheetos is the one which insists upon your attention.

So what is it about this snack that inspires such devotion, such brand loyalty among snackers? Its powdery residue seems to leap from its puffy-corn host in search of a clean white shirt, leaving its tell-tale orange streaks of gustatory forensics on one’s lapel. A bowl of Cheetos leaves no one truly satisfied; there is only the pang of wishing you’d chosen a larger bowl or the heavy shame of knowing you’ve just feasted upon the emptiest calories south of the pork rind shelf. But with $4 billion in annual sales, something must keep drawing our paws hungrily back to those pale orange arcs.

In 1932, Charles Elmer Doolin and his mother found the perfect recipe for a masa-based corn snack that wouldn’t turn stale too quickly. Fritos were born, and the public fell in love. A decade later, Doolin puffed the recipe and coated it in the finest fake cheese he could make in those grainy days before modern chemicals like Thiamin Mononitrate and Disodium Phosphate made eternal preservation and flavor simulation a quick-fix option.

Doolin needed assistance meeting the demand of ravenous Cheetophages, so he enlisted the help of potato chip hawker Herman W. Lay. The partnership was such a hit, and the companies merged in 1961, birthing the Frito-Lay we know and love and thank for our bulbous waistlines. PepsiCo absorbed the company four years later, firing Cheetos around the world as the perfect sodium-rich, trans-fat-heavy American snack food.

The mystery of the Cheeto magic has been revealed to us slovenly munchers, though the source and recipe of its fiery cheez-dust remains a closely-guarded secret. First, heaps of cornmeal get sucked from a giant silo into a shiny metal hopper. Then an extruder yanks the cornmeal from its comfy home and grinds it between two metal plates. The friction causes the starch in the cornmeal to melt, and the moisture within begins to tickle its temperature upward. Once it hits the boiling point, the cornmeal pops, resulting in the classic Cheeto shape, which resembles a severed pinky or a prominent apostrophe.

The Cheeto bits are spit out of the extruder into a sweltering pan of vegetable oil. The oil fries the Cheeto’s moisture into submission – down below two percent – yielding a crunchy, Super Bowl-worthy result. This process creates a Crunchy Cheeto; the puffs are air-dried instead. After that, the little corn curl cruises down a conveyor belt, landing in a manic tumble drum, where nozzles armed with Cheez powder elevate the little glob of crispy corn to legendary status. The entire process from shmushy cornmeal to masterpiece of snackery takes about nineteen minutes.

From their introduction in 1948 until 1971, what we now call Crunchy Cheetos were the only salty cheese alternative on the snack shelf. Then came the puffs, which stoners could let melt in their mouths, children could tuck under their noses as powdery orange mustaches, and swingers could scatter across their weird key-party orgy punch-drinks. I don’t know, the 70’s were a strange time.

While most competing cheese snacks – your Puffs, your Curlz, your Doodles – tend to see popularity only on a regional basis, Cheetos are the crowned kings of American Cheez-puffery. Their $4 billion dollar annual sales make the brand #11 on the list of PepsiCo’s biggest money-makers. That statistic should tell you that PepsiCo makes what financial experts call a “stinkin’ butt-load” of money.

Cheetos wandered into Brazilian stores in 1976, then made their way down to Australia in the 80’s. In 1994, the product became the first American snack food to arrive in communist China, no doubt setting off the course of events which will ultimately bring that nation firmly into the capitalism camp. And they did so, not with the perky tongue-tickling flavor of American Cheez, nor with the failed flavors they test-marketed there (including ranch dressing and smoked octopus), but with two winning tastes: Savory American Cream and Zesty Japanese Steak.

Like any conscientious international conglomerate, the Cheeto people aimed to find the perfect flavor for every new market they entered. They have Kiwi Coca-Cola in South Africa, so why not Cheetos Masala Balls in India? Australia’s only Cheeto product is something called Cheetos Cheese & Bacon Balls, which sounds frighteningly delicious. For the really strange stuff, you’ll have to go to (of course) Japan. That’s where you’ll find these:

Those are original Crunchy Cheetos, dipped in strawberry icing. Also available in chocolate, and some sort of cheese fondue. It disgusts me that this all sounds so appealing.

Cheetos have not escaped their share of controversy, of course. And not only because of their portion of the blame for the growing trend of heinous obesity. Because of the dye in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, consuming enough of them may turn your poop into something unholy, with a red/orange hue that might send you scrambling to the hospital. That’s what happened with a number of kids last year – enough so that CBS ran a story about it.

If crimson doody doesn’t send your alarm bells to ring-town, schools have also been banning the product en masse due to its genuine addictive properties. They are ‘hyper-palatable’, or addictive in the truest, most medical of definitions. Some research suggests these Flamin’ Hot curls of crunch can inspire the same kind of brain responses as a junkie gets when he craves his next fix. Treat your Cheetos with respect, and alternate your consumption with a steady flow of alcohol, drugs, bacon-wrapped bacon, and whatever else you have sworn to ingest only in moderation.

The Michael Jackson Cheeto sold for $35.18 on eBay in 2008. Below you’ll see two versions of Jesus-in-Cheeto form (also known as Cheesus – I’m not making that up). Even the quirks within this snack are delightful. I only wonder how the souls who uncovered these gems managed to hold off on devouring them.

The human well of will power is only so deep.

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