So, I decided to make Cheetos.
I decided this when I was eating Cheetos and marveling at their complexity — light, crunchy, orange, with tingle and tang. Too often we forget the little triumphs of modern living. Everyday inventions get lost in the story of our species. Sure, our species fused atoms and wiped out smallpox. We have built banks and machines and cities. But we have also built big things that seem small: soft beds, safe cars, and snack foods.
With the American spirit of invention burning, I figured that even if I couldn't build a city, I could try to make a Cheeto.
First, I set some ground rules.
1. No internet. No "research." Just one woman, one dream, and a bag of chips. The pioneers didn't have GPS, so why should I have instructions?
2. No substitutions. If Frito-Lay lists it, my Cheetos will have it. Bring on the monosodium glutamate and maltodextrin!
3. I must taste all the results.
4. I only get three tries.
First, I opened up a bag of classic Cheetos and found my muse:
Then I consulted the back of the bag and assembled my ingredients.
It turns out Safeway doesn't carry citric acid and maltodextrin.
Next, I needed whey.
I began by making corn mush.
Next up: Cook the cheese seasoning.
OK, back to the body of the Cheeto.
But how to shape them?
I baked and drained the oily cheese...
...I squeezed the corn mush...
...I pulverized the baked cheese in a food processor...
...and then I gave up.
At this point, I had questions. I had comments.
So I called the "Questions or Comments?" number on the back of the Cheetos bag. (1-800-352-4477, in case you'd like to chat).
Tina, who answered my call, was a great listener. She let me ask question after question, make comment after comment. Tina explained Frito-Lay's trade secret policy and then listened to me some more. I felt like I could tell her anything. I told her I wasn't sure how the cheese powder stuck, how each Cheeto was so unique, how they tasted so delicious. I felt discouraged. I worried I would fail.
And Tina was there to listen to my Questions and Comments, but not to answer them or comment back. She just listened. It felt, somehow, like a generous kind of friendship.
I did learn that "Cheetle" is the official term for the cheese seasoning. Tina also said that most people called the Questions and Comments desk asking for Chester the Cheetah merchandise like T-shirts, stuffed animals, and tote bags. Tina explained that Chester became the official spokescat in 1986.
Tina was very patient, but I needed real help.
So I called my lifeline: Nicolas, a friend with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And Nicolas told me that, first, I needed to emulsify my cheese mixture with oil.
Why should I add oil to make a powder? Nicolas explained that by mixing the oil into the whey protein, water, and cheese mixture, the fat from the cheese (which I didn't want) would rise to the surface while the cheese proteins (which I did want) settled to the bottom.
Armed with this information, I felt ready to try one more time.
First, I emulsified.
I skimmed the unwanted scum off the top.
Double boiling seemed simple enough, but took forever.
The resulting cheese “crumbs” were very, very strange.
And then I made Cheese by the Foot.
It wasn't working, so I went back to the emulsification stage to try again.
Once the crumbles were dry, I crushed them.
I developed a sophisticated frying technique.
And I got the Cheetle to stick, more or less.
The moment of truth: They tasted like...
I had sort of, almost, made a Cheeto. But so what?
Obviously, Cheetos are made with sorcery. Try as I might, I couldn't even get [Yellow 6] to look more tangerine than Trump. And as for the Cheetle? It is fairy dust. The worries I shared with Tina had all come true: My process was inefficient. My methods were misguided. My Cheetos were ugly and misshapen and not very tasty.
We live in a complex world. Very few of us have any idea how an airplane can crash-land in water or how skyscrapers sway with high winds or how oil can dry into powder. It's daunting. It's bizarre. And it's easy to feel alienated when you realize a cheese-flavored corn snack is near impossible to produce without a factory and a team of experts.
And yet! This silly (failed) experiment reminded me how inspiring that complexity can be. Sure, I still have no idea how to make a Cheeto, but at least I can imagine how I might make one. I can imagine a factory where corn meal is frying, cheese is emulsifying, and proteins are made into powder: where the bits are bagged and labeled and trucked and priced.
Later, we go into a store. We trade a piece of paper or pledge upon a piece of plastic and then, as we all know, we pop open the shiny plastic bag. Within the silver aluminum lining, we find those delicious, dusty orange strips of corn and Cheetle — the thing we've been looking for all along.