Our lives in the early ’60s were ruled by science, and we cherished the belief that technology—not politics or religion—held the key to a better life. Each innovation in food technology was eagerly embraced. Mashed-potato flakes made potatoes dug from the ground a rarity. And I remember the moment frozen vegetables supplanted canned in our home, when we were permanently liberated from ever again having to eat canned peas, green beans, or, most hated of all, creamed corn. Instead, there was a bowl of bright-green broccoli on the table, or gleaming white cauliflower, vegetables we had never seen before. Almost overnight every house on our street had a Deepfreeze in the basement, and it was loaded with TV dinners.
In 1967 my father left Pillsbury for Frito-Lay, an empire in flux. Besides corn and potato chips, Frito-Lay, which would soon merge with Pepsi-Cola to become PepsiCo, boasted only a handful of products: Rold Gold pretzels, Cheetos, Ruffles, and fried pork skins. Plain Doritos had just been introduced in an attempt to create a milder product that would appeal to Yankees, who, it was believed, had a natural aversion to the heavy and strongly flavored Fritos.
At Frito-Lay’s brand-new Irving, Texas, laboratories, the formulator system had been dismantled in favor of power decentralization. My father, now a product development manager, measured his own ingredients and mixed his own batches of dough, in addition to designing extruder nozzles and running his own experiments. He no longer interacted directly with suppliers. And the final taste of a product was no longer his responsibility. Instead, the marketing department ran multiple versions of a product through consumer and taste-panel tests.
Nevertheless, my dad flourished under the new system, making contributions to a variety of new products as the company sought to fill every niche in the expanding junk-food market: sour cream and onion potato chips, Baked Cheetos, Chili Cheese Fritos, Munchos, Tostitos, Taco Flavored Doritos, and, yes, Nacho Cheese Doritos. Years of research he conducted on “healthy” snacks using whole grains and fewer additives resulted, after his retirement, in the rollout of Sunchips. He also worked on crunchy-on-the-outside-but-chewy-in-the-middle Grand Ma’s cookies (a food-technology wonder), wheat-based Fritos (never marketed), and a line of drink mixes for adults with the carbonation built right into the powder—a project that was later quashed.
Increasingly, though, my father was tapped to work on snacks for the international market. His first foreign assignment, in a rundown Mexico City neighborhood, was to retool a factory that made chips out of pork skins. Using wheat pellets, he developed a product that closely resembled chicharrones. The next year he went to the Canary Islands to launch Munchitos, chips made from potato flakes that were the forerunner of Pringles. In Japan he introduced Baked Cheetos, using cheese from Australia, and Funyuns, formulated with a sugar coating to mimic traditional Japanese crackers.
I was off at college by this time and would return home to find the kitchen shelves lined with shiny silver bubble packs of test snacks. My father would always ask how I liked each one, and he seemed to take my comments to heart. But something had changed. My father was becoming disillusioned with the food industry. He explained his reservations to me: “Food companies take quality products that are well made with simple ingredients, which the public loves, and, little by little, they start to change the ingredients. Whey and enzyme-modified cheese replace aged Cheddar; cocoa is substituted for chocolate liquor—the list goes on and on—all to reduce manufacturing costs or improve shelf life. Chemicals are added to mask off flavors, and more chemicals are added to mask the additives. Eventually you have a list of ingredients as long as your arm, and you wake up one day and find that products you once loved taste horrible.”
It was not until the end of my father’s 40-odd years in the food industry that he witnessed the reintroduction of real cheese into many snacks, Cheetos among them. By then he and my mother, like many other Americans, were increasingly eating a diet of fresh vegetables and other unadulterated food products, avoiding chemical additives. Even so, he wasn’t disappointed last year with the appearance of several articles exonerating MSG as the cause of the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome and championing its continued use.
Like everything else in life, attitudes about food come full circle.