Pairing Off Flamin Hot Cheetos

Somewhere a diabolical chef is huddled over a grill, tossing Flamin’ Hot seasoning over strips of Wagyu beef. Another is preparing Flamin' Hot pad Thai. And you know very well that behind a sushi counter someone is looking at the dragon roll and putting two and two together.

It must be happening. After all, the Flamin’ Hot stamp can be found on everything from chips to popcorn, macaroni and cheese, tacos—even Mtn Dew. And if a neon green soft drink didn’t scare you, there’s nothing suspicious about a burnished red soda.

The craze started with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Twisted puffs of corn are pretty much a blank slate, and Cheetos benefitted from the sharp flicker of tart heat somewhat reminiscent of elote.

Schools have banned the snack, fearful either that crunching would drown out lectures or that custodians would be working overtime cleaning smudges. In a 2006 satire on NPR, Luke Burbank reported “all over America, school kids can be seen stumbling around in Cheeto-induced dazes, their eyes watery, their mouths ringed with the atomic red powder.”

After winning the NBA championship in 2018, Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green let his teammates raise the trophy as they arrived in San Francisco. Instead, he carried a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“Need these things!” he posted on social media.

Of course, wine is one of the original necessities of life. Sooner or later, circumstance will bring both to the same table—or living room couch, more likely. And when that happens, which wine should it be?

“Riesling,” says Jeffrey Birkemeier of Amapola Kitchen & Wine Merchant in Salinas, without hesitation. “Or milk.”

OK, so there was a bit of uncertainty.

He suggests Morgan’s 2020 Riesling from the Double L vineyard, citing the maturing terroir of the region. “That wine has gotten drier over the years,” Birkemeier explains. “But it still has residual sugar.”

According to Birkemeier, the off-dry style of Morgan’s Riesling will temper the spice and acidity of the Flamin’ Hot seasoning while cleaning up its sweet note.

It’s a compelling wine—an aromatic fruit basket with apricots and peaches tumbled together with apples and nectarines. These fruits plash over the palate in equal measure, pleasant and playful, toned only by a hint of must and honeycomb.

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Yes, the potential folly of setting such a nice wine against fiery corn puffs from a bag does enter one’s mind. But Birkemeier promises Morgan’s Riesling is such a confident wine that “every bite [of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos] will be like a first bite.”

He’s right, for the most part. The fruit flexes and develops, taking on a candied appeal and erasing artificial impressions in the red powder—mmm-mm, disodium inosinate; more please—and leaving clean, glowing embers. The heat lingers at the back of the palate between sips of wine, but this just gives a little punch to the combination.

The intense red dusting that leaves evidence of Flamin’ Hot consumption everywhere comes from a blend of Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 6 and Yellow 5. That’s a lot of yellow to tame the red, so Red 40 Lake must require welding goggles to work with alone.

It’s difficult to locate a source of heat in the list of ingredients. Perhaps the combination of onion powder, garlic powder and “natural flavor”—a rather vague entry on a list that is quick to point out that maltodextrin is made from corn—combines to mimic capsaicin.

Just where the “Flamin’” comes from has generated little investigative interest. Instead, the snack became immersed in scandal when the Los Angeles Times debunked the product’s feel good origin story.

It was marketing gold. Richard Montañez, a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in Southern California, brought the idea to executives in 1992. To lay it on further, he was inspired to approach corner office personnel after the company encouraged employees to “act like owners.”

Because of his vision, Montañez was promoted to an executive position. There’s a book about his success and a movie in the works.

Of course, Montañez had nothing to do with the development of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, as the LA Times discovered (pretty obvious, actually; the product hit the market in 1990. Marketing fail). Apparently he wasn’t even a janitor, but a machinist operator, whatever that is.

A Frito-Lay product development team actually came up with the idea…yawn! The janitor story—much more dramatic. Yet there’s a curious twist that’s difficult to fathom. 

Despite a book, a movie deal, many social media posts since 2007 and so on involving Montañez—one of the company’s executives—Frito-Lay appeared to be unaware of his claims. The Times notes that the company began an investigation in 2018 after a report on Montañez and his invention appeared in Esquire. Yet the Times’ report quotes one of Frito-Lay’s top people admitting he advised the janitor-machinist: “I said this is a fun story; this shouldn’t be a controversial story; your inclination to dramatize the story a little bit, you’ve got to keep away from that.”

So they knew and didn’t know. Need more wine to swallow that one. And maybe an order of Flamin' Hot scampi.

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