Goodbye, Mr. (Dorito) Chips

Posted Sept. 28, 2011, at 4:04 a.m.

Arch West, the inventor of the Dorito, died last week in Dallas. His daughter said that the family planned to sprinkle his urn with the flavored tortilla chips before burying it in dirt. “He’ll love it,” she told the Dallas Morning News.

His 97-year life introduced and shaped the Age of the Snack.

There was, after all, a time when sustenance was not neon. When mealtime was a specific time, rather than a movable feast of incessant grazing carried out by a nation of noshers and their Grab-n-Go Snak Packs (100 calories! I’ll have six).

The Dorito is our cultural legacy, carefully rationed out by Mom, instant popularity in a Ziploc bag.

Can I have one?

Just one.

Crunch.

So what are they? (The metaphorical question.)

The Dorito is what you bring to a barbecue when you forget to bring anything else. The Dorito is the intersection of taste and shame. The Dorito represents the proud audacity of slovenliness. Not only are they bad for you, they are loud. Not only are they loud, they are messy. Not only are they messy, the messiness is egregious, offensive, stubborn. Snacking Without Borders.

The invention of the Dorito in 1964 represents the moment at which Americans decided to just embrace it all, our crassest, grossest selves. Let’s get fat, here on the sofa, all together now, on one of the 23 flavors doing $5 billion worth of business for Frito-Lay around the world. Let’s buy the Nacho Cheese kind and work through the bag, slowly, mindlessly on a Saturday afternoon, watching “Star Wars” (again) on G4 and wiping our fingers discreetly on the underside of the cushion. Let’s do it all in a Snuggie.

“The potato chip, that at least had the grace to start life as a potato,” says Laura Shapiro, the food writer who has written on 1950s-era dinner preparation. “The Dorito is just brazen. I wonder if it’s one of the first foods that had no relation to actually being food. It just arrived, and we didn’t care.”

Without the Dorito, could there have been a frosted Pop-Tart? Could there have been Go-Gurt? Without the Dorito, could we have wrapped our hammy hands around a KFC Double Down and inhaled everything that is right and wrong with America?

“So what are they?” (The literal question.)

Renowned nutritionist Marion Nestle is Googling around for nutrition info on the Dorito. It comes up after a few seconds. “Let’s see. For 12 chips there’s 140 calories. There’s 170 milligrams of sodium. No fiber, a little protein . . . buttermilk solids, monosodium glutamate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated . . . WHAT? Are they kidding me?”

Some of these ingredients, she explains, “are ingredients you hardly ever see anymore. Cottonseed oil? Everyone has gotten rid of that.”

The continued presence of MSG, of three different artificial food colors, of partially hydrogenated glory: It speaks to the belovedness of the nacho cheese corn chip that these ingredients are allowed to continue thriving in their high-sodium sanctuary. Americans want all-natural, organic food. Americans want their Cool Ranch even more.

A declaration, by Nestle: “I would call the Dorito the classic, prototypical junk food.”

Until the 1960s, when Americans snacked, they snacked on blandness. Graham crackers. Potato chips. Peanut butter on an apple. Ants on a log. “American food,” says Andrew Smith, one of the few food historians who deigns to specialize in crud, “was not known for its zestiness.”

Corn-based snack chips had first been introduced in the late 1930s and gained popularity throughout World War II, corn being one food that wasn’t rationed. Fritos came first, and then Cheetos. In 1961, the story goes, West was on vacation in Southern California and came across a vendor selling fried tortilla chips, which he decided could be improved upon and then marketed to the public.

It was very American, in that it took something from another country and then put cheese on it.

“But that’s what the 1960s were all about,” Smith says. “The countercultural movement, the rejection of traditional American blandness, the idea of immigrant foods coming in, then Julia Child coming in and talking about food.”

All of it came together to teach the United States of Eaters that salt and pepper were not the only spices, and that flavor was important.

All of it came together in the Dorito.

“The flavor. I mean, you put them in your mouth, even today! It’s a taste sensation! The fact that it’s remained an important snack food for so long . . .”

Alone in our living rooms, after everyone else has gone to sleep, we dig the crumpled red bag out of the trash can, dip our moist finger all the way into the bottom and suck off the crumbs.

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