My pioneer foray into the decadence of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos takes us to Venice Beach on Memorial Day weekend in 2016. Now and then, a chilly breeze would slice through the bands of sunlight warming my face and shoulders like the soft enclosure of a palm. I was sitting with friends on a patchwork of towels, littered with snacks. Drowsy and a little bit stoned, I was disinclined to test the water and instead sifted through the gleaming, polychromatic bags — every one of them offering some form of sodium-rich extravagance. I hadn’t purchased the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — I was, as of yet, ignorant of their allure — but my friend had known better and generously shared a few.
As vices go, mine wield the intensity of mild undergraduate roguery: weed gummies, rosé, the occasional tequila shot before my husband and I summon a Lyft so as to be tucked into bed by midnight. I’ve never sampled hard drugs, in part because we don’t seem to matriculate in the same circles. I’m sure Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop disciples would chastise me for my enthusiastic consumption of carbohydrates, but bread is god’s nectar witched into dough, and I will not forsake it.
And as for “junk food,” that obscure category, I don’t gravitate toward much of it. When I was growing up, my mother would anoint our school lunches with Little Debbie treats — Oatmeal Creme (sic) Pies, Swiss Rolls — and our pantry generally housed a bag or two of Utz potato chips, but the gastronomical larks stopped there. My sisters and I drank milk with dinner every night. We took vitamins as directed. We were flush with privilege: Our parents possessed the means to feed us bountifully, and our mother dedicated herself to our welfare; she cooked for us most every night. My indulgences tend to correspond with the felicities enabled by an upper-middle-class socioeconomic background: cheeses from specialty stores, crème brûlée at a well-reviewed French restaurant, tea cookies from Whole Foods. In every culinary choice, my coddled upbringing rears its cushioned head.
But I knew, like I know my own hand in the dark, that I would love Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The process of deduction was facile, to say the least. I enjoy all varieties of spicy foods, and a few years ago I carried on a love affair with Andy Capp’s Hot Fries. And while my childhood diet did not include Cheetos, I had not languished in quarantine: I was familiar with Chester Cheetah, that spindly, menacingly exuberant spokes-cat, and I ranked his wares among the most exciting snacks. Thin and curved like German expressionist patterns (and, every once in a while, like intestines), they radiated orange bright like an alarm: They did not so much invite, but dare. And, of course, Cheetos were delicious; teems of knowledgeable and invested parties had ensured this would be the case. What fool, while perusing the offerings at a party snack table, would snub a bowl of these laboratory-begotten amenities? Not I.
So, decades passed, and suddenly I was 30, sunken cozily in sunlight and warm sand and hankering to assuage the munchies. Eagerly, I bit into my first Cheeto: Flamin’ Hot variety. Crisp tang gave way to a yielding, wispy center, and finally, heat and vinegar. “I believe in low lights and trick mirrors,” said artist Andy Warhol. The Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, I would argue, is a fundamentally Warholian object — that is to say, he would have loved them, at least in concept. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto is a ruse. There’s no there there; no center to hold. The puffed corn can’t absorb the “Flamin’ Hot” ingredient coating the exterior. Ultimately, there is only a shell, vibrant in its artificial near-magenta rouge, a color uncannily attractive in its flagrant defiance of nature’s palate. The Flamin’ Hot Cheeto is beautiful, hot nothing.
Yet I am obsessed with them, and so is everyone else. As Miles Klee writes, they are “the premier junk food of the younger, increasingly diverse generations.” They’ve also attained a peculiar celebrity status. In 2014, Katy Perry dressed as a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto for Halloween. At this year’s New York Fashion Week, Chromat, a designer of athletic and swimwear, incorporated them as show accessories. Models took delicate bites as they traipsed down the runway. Candescent spandex bottoms featured snack packs tethered to models’ hips like provisions packed by a child adventuring in the woods.
As Vice observed, the Chromat show was singular in its inclusion of models from underrepresented demographics; however, photographs from the event suggest that conventionally attractive, thin women were selected to sport the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags. Resultantly, an odd symmetry emerged: slender Cheetos perched between delicate fingers like a sixth, crumpled digit. The pinkish hue is markedly more attractive than the garish orange of a standard Cheeto, and they’re not so clumsy and flagrant as a rotund Cheese puff. In the hands of a gorgeous model, the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto almost masquerades as an hors d’oeuvre.
But of course, that “almost” is significant. With their runway debut, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos soar to the lofty echelon of “Cool Girl” apparatus. We’ve been acquainted with this archetype for years now, since Gillian Flynn’s delineation of it in her novel Gone Girl and Anne Helen Petersen’s celebrity history of this form of feminine icon. The Cool Girl “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2,” sneers Amy, Flynn’s titular “gone girl.”
Gorging on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — or suggesting that you do — while slinking down a runway invokes the same performance. They’re more audacious than the conventional hamburger; they supply no robust nutrients and advertise themselves with brash synthetic chromaticity. To unite Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with haute couture, and the larger razzle-dazzle of New York Fashion Week, combines the so-called “lowbrow” — a term with distinctly racist origins — with the highbrow in a way that has, on its own, become au courant (think of Chrissy Teigen at the McDonald’s drive-thru window). It feels congruous with her image to conceive of Jennifer Lawrence downing a full-size bag at the Oscars, and then, at the after-party, bemoaning the perils of gastrointestinal distress while stitched into a Dior gown. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: Now the hottest snack and accessory, so long as you’ve got the bod of Aphrodite.
To position Flamin’ Hot Cheetos within such posh — and, despite Chromat’s admirable efforts, aesthetically normative— settings creates a queasy narrative when we consider the snack’s origins. Soon to be the focus of a biopic by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Richard Montañez dreamed up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while working as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in California. Montañez has, thankfully, been recognized and amply compensated for his inventiveness: he has since sold a best-selling memoir and has recently served as an executive vice-president at Frito-Lay. But of course, his story is one that a behemoth corporation is only too glad to champion. The optics shimmer with a mirage of benevolence and bootstrap success: A man of color, an immigrant, ascends from Frito-Lay’s constellation of low-level laborers to become one of its most celebrated executives — because he had an idea, and the powers that be were generous enough to listen. We can only conjecture as to the tone of the upcoming film, but nevertheless, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos join a bevy of commodities rendered in marginalized spaces, only to be co-opted as the plaything of the privileged.
I’m not a supermodel, and I lack the reserves of chill to ever approximate a “Cool Girl,” but as someone both white and privileged who is — in this very piece — performing my affinity for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, I, too, am implicated. It is also simpler to flaunt a taste for “junk food” as if it were some darling quirk — Manic Pixie Cheeto Girl! — than to admit the anxieties weighing on this predilection like soaked sandbags.
For I ruminate over each Flamin’ Hot Cheetos purchase. I fret that I eat them too often, that I do not earn my indulgences, and then chastise myself for attempting to abide by some arbitrary metric of healthy eating. I agonize because I’m not a camera-ready star of the runway, or size-two shit-talking, angel-faced favorite of the in-crowd. I’m 32, with a host of body image hangups prickling at the back of my neck, and since my mother died at the end of November 2017, my sharpest cravings are to see her again and to eat motherfucking Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I have, too, contrived a medically sanctioned grief ritual: I exercise and talk to my miracle of a therapist, and I maintain the most consistent schedule possible for a self-employed writer. I have imposed upon myself the imperative of productivity: Go, go, go — honor your mother through pluck and drive. Cry, but never miss a deadline. Only claim the leisure you deserve.
And what are Flamin’ Hot Cheetos but little sizzling batons of leisure — the conceptual opposite of a carrot (albeit an oddly aesthetic equivalent). They’re a pause from “should,” a flirty rebuff to “nutritional value.” After returning from helping my father pack up our family’s home — a goodbye to the bedroom of my adolescent angst, to the living room where my mother slipped away — I begged my husband to pick up wine and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the store. Later, my fingers coated with a paste of pinky-orange dust and tears, I considered how I had never seen Mom eat a Cheeto. She gardened and accompanied our dogs on nighttime constitutionals and took satisfaction in her own wholesome and delicious cooking. None of these sound activities had spared her life; she was healthy until she wasn’t. Bodies will take their turns, gruesome and innocuous, regardless of what we put inside of them.
I can’t argue for the virtues of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: None exist. They’re amoral and fundamentally neutral, no more capable of assuaging my grief than the empty husk of “thoughts and prayers.” But not everything requires meaning — not everything needs to be something else. When I tuck away a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, I do it because I like them, because they’re nothing more than what they reveal themselves to be. That’s enough.