On Great American Snak Klassiks: The Cheez-It, and the Hideously Underrated Frito

In general, the Hausfrau does not keep a lot of junk food in the house, not because no one likes it, but because I view it as a waste of money. If I don’t spend money on crap food that has no expiration date, then it means I can have a budget to do things like go to Ashley’s Ice Cream and get some really, really, really good ice cream. This is sound logic. Once in a while I will buy some potato chips (to go with sandwiches, a summertime phenomenon mostly); at Thanksgiving, we’ve come to view Bugles as a traditional part of the hors d’oeuvres platters (they go well with pimiento cheese). But these are treats; they are not standard everyday fare.

I’ve worked hard to get my kid to grasp that things like potato chips (and Ashley’s Ice Cream) are treats, and she’s cool with it. That said, when you have a toddler, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to have Goldfish crackers around. To me, Goldfish are a waste of time: they are unsatisfying as either food or junk food. But toddlers love them. Our Goldfish phase lasted about two years. We bought giant cartons of them. They got eaten, but hardly ever by me, and as soon as I could get away with not having Goldfish crackers in the house all the time, I stopped buying them.

But the fact remains that some members of our household often require a snack and they want it to be salty and crunchy. As a result, in the last several years I’ve become someone who clips coupons for certain brands of crackers (yes, I clip coupons to save money on purchases I view as frivolous; if I have to buy these things, I shouldn’t spend too much money on them. Though I also clip coupons for things I use all the time, like our brand of coffee or toothpaste or whathaveyou, because why the hell not). I try to not read the lists of ingredients for these crackers, because the purist in me would probably faint if I absorbed the data.

The preferred brands of crackers, as of this writing, are: Cheez-Its (not Cheese Nips, which I’ve been informed are distinctly inferior). I had thought there’d be a list to put there, but the truth is, there isn’t. I do also keep Ritz crackers around, because they are just nice enough to serve to company, should we have any; but if there are Cheez-Its in the house, the Ritz crackers go uneaten. If I buy Wheat Thins or Triscuits, those will get consumed, but not with the same vim or vigor. Maybe they’ll get eaten quickly if there’s some delicious cheese around, like Beemster, or if I have pimiento cheese in the fridge, or tapenade. But no one wants to eat those crackers just on their own, for their own sake. Come the end of the day, when the husband and child need something to see them through to dinner, the preferred cracker is the Cheez-It, often served in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter, because it turns out that dipping Cheez-Its in peanut butter is really good.

There is another junk food that I purchase with a certain level of calm acceptance: the Frito. My mature appreciation of Fritos began when I bought a bag of them on a whim, to have with a deli sandwich. I ate them and thought, “Man, Fritos are good. I’d forgotten how good they are.” They tasted clean and uncomplicated compared to the fancy potato chips we inevitably got when we decided to make cold cut sandwiches for dinner (something that happens in the summer, when it’s too hot for me to want to cook). Horseradish and cheddar potato chips are all well and good, but Fritos seemed honest and unpretentious in comparison. Furthermore, they’re good with pimiento cheese, good with chili, good with just about everything I can think of to dip them in. My husband also likes Fritos, because who doesn’t, so I resolved that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to buy a bag of them once in a while. They occasionally go on sale for something like $1.50 for a large bag; if you happen to have a coupon that gets you some money off, that’s a very affordable treat.

It was when I bothered to look at the list of ingredients that I realized the Frito-Lay people were missing out on a golden opportunity. I posted to Facebook, on October 17, 2011: “wonders again why uptight overeducated parents who spend a fortune on “healthy” snacks for their kids don’t embrace Fritos. You know what the ingredients are in Fritos? Corn; corn oil; salt. I don’t think I have ever seen such a short list of ingredients on an item we think of as “junk” food.” The thread that followed was long, passionate, and had far more people commenting on it than I would have expected. Everyone loves Fritos, but they do it silently, in private, ashamed, like it’s something you’d have to confess to a priest about. As if Fritos are as fundamentally disgusting as, say, Funyuns. But it shouldn’t be that way. We should eat our Fritos with pride, knowing that there’s no polymonodextrosorbaglycophol in them. Assuming the Fritos people haven’t been lying to us all these years, we can eat our Fritos with pride, impunity, and pleasure.

But: the people at Frito-Lay are missing out on a golden opportunity. If they were smart, they would focus on re-branding and get the demographic that shops at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to accept Fritos as the ultimate and perfect junk food, a junk food that is almost of such high quality that it is no longer junk food. Because it almost already is. The difference between polenta — a foodstuff no one dares insult — and Fritos is, when you get down to it, merely a matter of cooking technique, and marketing. If someone made Fritos but called them  Polenta Crackers? They’d be selling them at Dean and DeLuca, or, in my town, at Romeo’s and P&M and Edge of the Woods and the Elm City Market. Selling them for $3.25 for a 2 ounce bag. They make organic Ruffles, for pity’s sake — why not have a similar option for Fritos?

Because the ingredients in Fritos are things we might even have in our own kitchen at home, it was inevitable that I should pause to wonder if they could be made at home. I definitely have corn(meal), salt, and oil. Could I make, like, artisanal Fritos? Would the average person, with average ingredients at his or her disposal, and a perhaps slightly above-average tolerance for kitchen mishegas, be able to pull this off? And the answer, I’m going to tell you right now, is “Yes, you can make artisanal Fritos, but seriously, don’t bother, it’s like the homemade Grape Nuts. Don’t do it.” The New York Times helpfully provides a recipe for those of us who are just nutty enough to want to give this a roll, at http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/12326-homemade-fritos. I leave this for you to contemplate at your leisure.

Back to reality, in which you don’t make your own Fritos: As long as you’re buying the basic, original flavor Frito chips, not some kind of honey-barbecue style, then you’re on solid moral ground, as far as I’m concerned. Because I’m not someone who actually cares much about GMO food, and I don’t eat enough Fritos to feel that anything in them is real likely to affect my well-being anyhow. But I think Frito-Lay would do well — expand their their hold on the market — to revisit their production system and start making Fritos with organic, free-range, non-GMO corn and organic, free range, non-GMO oil and sea salt harvested from someplace fancy-sounding. What’s holding them back? It’s a real mystery to me. Think what the Pirate Booty people did with Cheetos. What Smartfood and Annie’s did in the 1980s with snack-pack bags of crappy cheese popcorn, the kind that you got out of vending machines in the 1970s. Some of which are probably still there, dangling from a curved hook….
I won’t go so far as to say Fritos are actually healthful, but for god’s sake, in the context of American snack foods today? They are comparatively healthful; they are straightforward; they appear to have no tricks up their sleeves. And they are very, very good with chili, which is a healthful dish, properly made. So as far as I’m concerned — and, please remember, I’m a hausfrau, not a doctor or nutritionist — you can have your Frito pie and sleep the sleep of the right and just.



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