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 $II billion subsidiary of Pepsi Co 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...