If you’ve been anywhere near a middle school in the past 10 years, you know that there is but one true snack-food god, and it is Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The bright-red extruded corn twiglets are the crystal meth of the recess set—so much that they have been officially banned from some school districts for fear they cause actual physical addiction. But that hasn’t stopped the snack from being the subject of YouTube videos, BuzzFeed lists, mashup recipes, and countless scarlet-stained memes—if anything, it’s been gaining in popularity since its first ban in 2010.
As terrifying as they are to snackless grownups, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (hereafter known as Hot Cheetos, to be distinguished from later heat-seeking products XXXtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Flamin’ Hot Limon Cheetos, Flamin’ Hot Fantastix, and Flamin’ Hot Puffs) are the embodiment of the American Dream. Get on the bus now, old folks. It’s driving away with or without you.
The Hot Cheetos origin story alone is enough to classify the chips as a textbook American success. The legend goes that Mexican-American Frito-Lay janitor Richard Montañez was thinking about the reject Cheetos produced at the factory where he worked—abandoned corn puffs that had failed the cheesification process and were unworthy of Chester Cheetah’s good name. If only there was a way to rescue these wayward snacks! Then he thought of elote, the Mexican street snack of corn covered in butter, cheese, and chile sauce. He pitched the idea of tossing a spice powder on those orphan Cheetos to the big bosses at the plant, who loved it. In 1992, Hot Cheetos were released upon the world, and now they’re Frito-Lay’s top-selling snack food. Montañez is a VP at the company. America!
The bright-red extruded corn twiglets are the crystal meth of the recess set.
But buried in that story is a more pervasive one—the story of how spice won over the American palate. When Montañez pitched his elote-inspired snack, he was following in the footsteps of late-’60s pioneers Old El Paso and Doritos in mainstreaming traditional Mexican food. Sure, they traded in bastardized versions of that food—and both, crucially, were created and sold by white people—but by capitalizing on the American middle class’ growing interest in other cultures without being too aggressively unfamiliar, they were easily assimilated into the mainstream, paving the way for more ambitious (and spicier) traditional foods to follow.
Don’t forget that for most of the 20th century, the American palate was so bland that Jell-O + mayonnaise + canned fruit = salad. Herbs and spices were limited to a bare handful—mainly Italian, always dried. These early-Mex pioneers opened eyes to a world of cumin, masa, and chiles. And Doritos opened the door to a world of perfectly engineered flavor science, as described in Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect. In 1918, the average American used half a pound of spices in their food in a year, according to Schatzker’s accoint. Today, that number is 3.5 pounds, a 500% increase. The growth happened by acclimating our palates to new flavors, stimulating the receptors in the brain to continually seek increasingly bold flavors. Montañez’s Hot Cheetos improved on the OG Doritos by not only hinting at spice, but also leaning into it. It turns out those grownups who worry about Hot Cheetos affecting kids’ brain chemistry aren’t entirely wrong.
But our entire world, not just our factory-produced snacks, has become more spice-centric, and heat is king. Fast-food chains are locked in a battle of spicy oneupmanship (from Wendy’s Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich, to Red Robin’s Fiery Ghost Tavern Burger); curry houses, Thai restaurants, and wing-slinging bars offer heat-eating challenges. (Not to mention a certain Hot Ones show.) There’s a whole class of YouTube videos dedicated to the Hot Cheetos challenge, whose rules are hard to pin down—sometimes you have to eat a whole bag within a time limit, sometimes it’s how many chips the challenger can eat before drinking water or milk. The constants are that the star is almost always under the age of 16, and at some point she will comically fan his tongue with her hand to put out that Hot Cheetos fire. For kids, the benign masochism of spicy food is a safe step toward thrill-seeking—extremely sour candies (in the ’90s, we used to see how many Atomic Warheads we could cram into our mouths at once) and the Cinnamon Challenge have the same PG-13 appeal.
But if Hot Cheetos were launched in 1992, what took them so long to catch fire? After all, they hit the market during the final days of the golden era of advertising to kids; 1992 was the year the Surgeon General announced a boycott of Joe Camel, the cigarette-shilling cartoon camel, and parent groups blocked the addition of a Chester Cheetah show to the Saturday morning cartoons lineup. Unlike wannabe-cool mascot dweebs like Chuck E. Cheese, all skateboard kneepads and little-kid voice, Chester’s gravelly growl incited civil disobedience, sass, and more than a little bit of violence. That year he also had his own video game for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Cheetos were big, but they weren’t yet a cultural event.
“But buried in that story is a more pervasive one—the story of how spice won over the American palate.”
Hot Cheetos’ secret to modern success is that they’re tailor-made for memes, both visual and experiential. That tell-tale red dust stains more than 147,000 Instagrams, and new Hot Cheetos challenge videos are uploaded to YouTube at a rate of more than 100 per month. Katy Perry, longtime poster girl for half-formed tween fantasies, dressed as a Hot Cheeto for Halloween in 2014, immediately prompting claims that she’d “won Halloween.”
Then, of course, there’s “Hot Cheetos & Takis.” The 2012 video from Y.N. Rich Kids perfectly balances surprisingly good production values for a YouTube rap upload, with gorgeously childish lyrics like, “Riding around with my allowance / nobody can stop me.” The clip has received more than 13 million views; in the words of culture critic Rembert Browne, writing for Grantland, “It’s a banger.” It also singlehandedly catapulted Takis, a rolled corn chip made by Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo, out of bodegas and into the national spotlight. With flavors like chile limòn and fuego, Takis are the next generation of culture-specific snack foods, and we are ready for them.
While it took Hot Cheetos a decade to break into the big leagues, their relevance now shows no signs of fading. As culture makers look to younger and younger audiences for currency, and as kids continue to dominate social-media platforms in greater numbers, we’ll continue to care about what they care about. And as they grow up online, they’ll take their obsessions with them—look at the pervasive chart dominance of former child stars Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Zayn Malik. A meme that lasts for more than a decade and builds real market value for a corporation? That’s the new American Dream right there.