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Column: what the anger is really about over Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos’ origin story

For more than 15 years, Richard Montañez has told a story of scrambling so incredible that few doubted it.

According to him, he was a humble janitor at a Frito-Lay factory in Rancho Cucamonga in the 1980s, when the high school dropout came up with a brilliant idea: What if we put spicy powder on the Cheetos? Montañez pitched the idea to skeptical bosses, then morphed into Big Cheese once Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos became a business success and a cultural touchstone for Latino and black consumers.

It was a saga he repeated in classrooms, at conferences and in the media, a story so powerful that Eva Longoria wants to make a film about his life. Journalists, food historians and the public have undoubtedly swallowed up Montañez’s word – for who dared to doubt it?

In a country where whites constantly take over Mexicans, here is a Mexican who showed the gringos what was going on.

That’s why I recounted Montañez’s success in my 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”. I repeated it two years ago on the San Francisco public radio station KQED, going so far as to say, “When it comes to Mexican cuisine, there [are] so many origin stories … and almost all of them are just a bunch of lies. The origin story of Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos is one of the few that has been verified. “

Then, about a year ago, my LA Times colleague Sam Dean asked me something I had never considered: What if Montañez hadn’t told the truth?

I told Sam that while I saw no reason to dismiss Montañez, he should see if there was one there.

There was.

Last weekend Sam crushed Montañez’s claims like a toddler pressing a Cheeto into the dust. The fallen King Flamin ‘Hot’s resume is for the most part real and truly impressive – the Ontario native has gone from mopping up to sitting in executive offices and prestigious advisory boards. But Sam found documents, people, videos, and other evidence that showed Montañez had little, if anything, to do with the development of Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos.

Sam’s story went viral and many readers praised his work. But another school of thought has also emerged in defense of Montañez. His supporters accused Sam of trying to demolish a successful Mexican, of wasting his time investigating such a trivial matter. Some have even accused the newspaper of ulterior motives – bestselling author Julissa Arce, for example, tweeted that the Times “just can’t stand us winning” whatever that means.

It’s easy to dismiss reviews like Flamin ‘Hot Truthers who can’t see the Cheetos bag for the chip. But I understand why people are rallying behind Montañez. The truth hurts, for one. And their frustration with Sam’s article is not so much about Montañez as it is the microcosm of two big issues that continue to plague Mexicans in the United States: historical erasure and the constant desire for heroes that white America can also. to kiss.

The first phenomenon was one of the themes of my book “Taco USA”. The credit of popular Mexican food items in this country to white people is a trope that perpetuates the idea of ​​American ingenuity and Mexican idleness. Call it Manifest Destiny with a sprinkling of cheese.

Frito-Lay, parent company of Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos, offers two examples.

Founder Elmer Doolin told anyone who listened during his lifetime that he started his business by buying the original recipe for $ 100 from a Mexican in San Antonio during the Great Depression. Doolin never bothered to name this Mexican, nor did his company in the decades that followed. It wasn’t until the Texas Monthly reporter found Gustavo Olguin in Oaxaca in 1982 that the current inventor of Fritos entered the official register.

Another example shows my favorite chip: Doritos. When Frito-Lay leader Arch West died in 2011, news outlets across the country – including this newspaper – wrote that he invented Doritos after being “inspired” by a vacation in Mexico, because that’s what West was saying.

I laughed when all these obituaries came out because the real inventors were the Morales family of Anaheim. They gifted a version of Doritos to Disneyland in the early 1960s at the old Casa de Fritos restaurant they were catering to, and convinced West that Frito-Lay should mass-produce their crunchy creation. My family members showed me documents to support their claim, and Doolin’s daughter confirmed this in her own book.

Another example: Taco Bell. In founder Glenn Bell’s awe-inspiring headline, “Taco Titan: The Glenn Bell Story,” he openly bragged about how the idea to make billions of hard-shelled tacos came from a Mexican restaurant across the street from his burger on route 66. San Bernardino. Bell didn’t bother to name it and even joked that their tacos “were dripping with melted fat.”

This restaurant still exists and its name is Mitla Café. I was proud to tell their story in my book, along with that of Doritos, as a form of historical recovery. The history of food, especially that of junk food, may seem redundant – but audiences love it because it is so tangible and visceral. This is why the oldest documented frozen margarita machine can be found in the Smithsonian. Why the venerable King Taco chain still retains its original taco truck.

This is why the history of Montañez had such a cachet.

There are too few well-known Mexican Americans to invent things that almost everyone loves. We are invested in those who reach levels that we can only hope to reach. After all, we are still strangers in America despite our numbers, our centuries of living here. And now you have a white reporter named Sam Dean telling us that a Mexican lied about creating a product popular with so many people?

I would be crazy too.

But then the reality founds me. See, Mexicans can stretch the truth to fit a practical narrative as well as gringos when it comes to our food, folks. The most notorious example is Gruma, the world’s largest tortilla company. The multinational has long claimed that it is the leading producer of dehydrated masa, which has revolutionized tortilla making because fresh masa spoils quickly. Gruma puts his original date in 1949 – but 22 years earlier Jose Bartolomé Martinez from San Antonio got a US patent for the exact same thing and called it Tamalina.

Few credit Martinez for his innovation, while Gruma’s dehydrated masa product, Maseca, continues to be a staple in Latino homes across the United States, with few reviews to be found.

Montañez – soon to be publishing his second memoir – doubles his Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos legacy. Although he didn’t want to talk to Sam, he told Variety following our investigation, “All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my story, what I did in my kitchen.

That’s all his fans need. But like those misplaced Frito corn chips that won’t curl, that doesn’t necessarily solve things.

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