The Taco Chip Wars

Sometime before 1960, at Disneyland in California, a restaurant called Casa de Fritos bought stale tortilla chips from a local vendor and spiced them up for a second life. They became so popular that Frito-Lay eventually bought them and “Doritos” were born.

Doritos are the food equivalent of crack. 

They don’t really taste good. They taste, in fact, like spiced-up stale tortilla chips: The batch currently on sale were probably created in 2018. Consider how tortilla chips in a restaurant taste (why you order the combination plate with extra rice and then can’t eat any of it because you and your date consumed two full baskets of chips before you ordered anything …) and you see my point. 

But it sort of doesn’t matter how they taste, or that they are the very definition of empty nutrition (they are sort of anti-nutrition, like anti-matter). You could lick the same spices off your hand and experience some of the same sensations. It sort of doesn’t matter that they leave your mouth a gritty orange cave and your fingertips remain stained for two days. I don’t know what the secret ingredient is, but you can’t stop eating them. They satisfy an atavistic craving that seems not to really rely on taste or texture.

When I was a kid, I worked for several summers in a potato chip plant …the place where they made Jay’s Potato Chips, famous in Chicago. Jay’s potato chips were invented by Leonard Japp and his wife, Eugenie, (they were originally called “Japp’s” potato chips but this was changed at the time of the second world war). 

This company also made tortilla chips – which the manager pronounced with two “L” sounds instead of a “Y” sound. They couldn’t give them away and they actually tasted pretty good, kind of like the way Tostitos taste now, but a little better.

That same manager told me that this was because of Doritos, that no one could completely figure out the allure.

It didn’t help that the names of the companies that produced the original chip brands – in the days before franchise Mexican restaurants — sounded kind of the same.

Arch West, a salesman for the company that became Frito-Lay, basically invented the modern incarnation of Doritos. He also advised his pal, David Pace, the creator of Pace salsas, to move the picante sauces off the ketchup shelf in the store and next to the taco chips. It was the perfect marriage. 

West died at 97 in 2000.

In his Washington Post obituary, the writer explained that West’s family placed his cremated remains in an urn and family members dusted his grave with a layer of Doritos. The last line read, “Ashes to ashes, crunch to crunch.”

Don’t you love that?

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