As we've established time and time (and time) again, it's an exceedingly weird time to be alive. A reality television star is president, thousands of people are gathering to mimic the way Owen Wilson says "wow" and a fashion label called Chromat recently sent models down the runway eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos. That's right, Cheetos. And there were Cheetos bag-inspired purses to match, because who says high fashion and junk food can't coexist?
Strangely enough, this wasn't an isolated incident of cultural relevance for the spice-dusted snack. Flamin' Hot Cheetos have become fodder for any number of memes. They were recently mentioned in the first episode of this season of Atlanta ("What flavor are Flamin' Hot Cheetos?" Earn asks, to which Darius replies: "Hot."). Their culinary applications have proven increasingly expansive: Burger King made them into stomach-devastating mac n' cheese-filled sticks, local shops in places like Michigan and Cincinnati have attracted attention for making Flamin' Hot Cheeto donuts and the general public has taken to putting them on pizza, preparing Flamin' Hot Cheeto Thanksgiving turkeys and even using the dust to coat sushirittos. And if that isn't enough to prove that we're in the midst of a Flamin' Hot moment, just take a look at this Google Trends chart.
But why the Flamin' Hot Cheeto? And why now? Is it as random as a few dumb internet jokes that got stuck in people's brains, only to manifest as donuts and handbags, or is there something more at play here?
It's hard to ignore the unfortunate connection between Cheetos and Donald Trump, who, with his tanning bed-orange skin, tends to resemble an anthropomorphized version of the bodega treat. Remember the parody "Desperate Cheeto" by comedian Randy Rainbow? You know, "Despacito," except about Trump? Yeah, that pretty much solidified the comparison we've all been making since 2015 or so.
But on a deeper level, the Trump presidency provides a legitimate political underpinning for perhaps the most unexpected development in this saga: Fox Searchlight's recently announced feature film about Richard Montanez, the inventor of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto. Called Flamin' Hot, the movie will tell the true story of a humble son of a Mexican immigrant who, working as a janitor at Frito-Lay, came up with a good idea that eventually turned into a full-fledged pop cultural phenomenon. In other words, it's a direct challenge to the deleterious narrative of the current administration.
As are the Cheetos themselves: reportedly inspired by the elote, a traditional Mexican corn dish that often makes use of hot chiles, the product is more or less a Mexican riff on a quintessentially American snack. They're a symbol, albeit a very random one, of what makes American truly great: our unique ability to bring together various cultures in service of possibly the only snack more tasty (and non-dietetic) than a cheese-dusted corn puff. Namely, a spicy cheese-dusted corn puff.
Political considerations aside, Flamin' Hot Cheetos are also completely over-the-top in pretty much every way that a mainstream snack can be—an unabashedly unhealthy food hybrid in the great tradition of the turducken and the cronut. It's near-impossible to consume them without turning your fingers and lips bright orange, so if you're going to partake, you pretty much have to own it. And I'd argue that it's this—this spirit of publicly making bold, potentially ill-advised personal choices during a time when we're so often encouraged to do just the opposite—that lies at the core of what makes the Flamin' Hot Cheeto so zeitgeist-y. It takes balls to consume a radioactive orange snack with 26 grams of fat per small serving during the same cultural moment where things like SoulCycle and juice cleansing and workout selfies exist; like A-list celebrities smoking in the bathrooms at the Met Gala or Alexander Wang serving McDonald's hamburgers and 7/11 snacks at his exclusive fashion week afterparties, Flamin' Hot Cheetos can seem hiply rebellious when placed between the delicate fingers of those whose bodies may suggest an otherwise rigid diet.
In all fairness, this wasn't necessarily the aim of Becca McCharen-Tran, the designer behind the Chromat show. She subverted that notion by featuring plus-size models and models of color on her Cheeto-laden runway (as she is well-known in the industry for doing), presenting junk food-eating women who, while still models, look slightly more like the rest of us. McCharen-Tran's inspiration, according to The Root, came from her own childhood, much of which was apparently spent in swimming pools consuming Cheetos. Which sounds amazing, and also gets at yet another probable reason for the snack's resurgence: our culture's overwhelming nostalgia for the '90s, evidenced in everything from current TV to the forthcoming Spice Girls reunion tour.
Flamin' Hot Cheetos hit the market in 1992, placing them squarely in that sentimental sweet spot for millennials and Gen-Xers; as such, they function as both as a reminder of a simpler time and an unexpectedly loaded totem of the world we live in today. For better or much, much worse, we are truly living in the age of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto. So put down the kale salad, blow off that hot yoga class and join in. But maybe grab some Tums first.