Notes on Cheez-It Tostadas and [insert other novelty food here]
Sure, why not, let's talk about this
Hello, Snackers. It’s new, it’s novel, it’s designed to get your attention.
Some breaking food news:
Taco Bell introduced the Big Cheez-It Tostada. News outlets are all over it, including not just food media (Thrillist, Food & Wine, Chew Boom, etc.) and the usual quirky-stories-on-the-internet clearinghouses (hello, Mashable!) but also places like Fortune, The Hill, and Marketwatch. I’m sure there are many more, but my interest only goes so far.
Here’s a screenshot from Google News:
Note to self: update that top section when you republish this essay after the next Quirky Food drops in a few days.
New novelty foods make a splash on social media every few weeks. Most recently, before today, it was ketchup-flavored popsicles and mustard-flavored ice cream (made by different companies!).
Some writers drool. Other writers recoil. Still others write a round-up of the internet’s reactions, a sort of academic meta-analysis for content creators.
The food becomes A Thing People Are Talking About, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week, rarely much longer; in some cases, their longest legacy is a bullet point on a list of forgotten food fads. Remember Unicorn Frappuccinos? Remember the KFC Double Down?
Seeing a wild new food like [insert the new one today] is exciting for people who think it sounds delicious (which is often me!) and fascinating for people who are intrigued by fads and the way the broader public reacts to them (also me!).
* * *
Every food was once a novelty food. Someone was the very first human to squeeze an orange and drink its juice; someone was the first to pair peanut butter and jelly. There was an original lasagna, an original turducken, an original falafel, an original Kraft Single.
All of these, presumably, were met with some amount of hesitation by the first people to see them. I’d wager that throughout history, millions of skeptics have seen a food for the first time and gone, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
In some cases—cronuts and tostilocos come to mind—when a food is specifically designed for the sake of novelty, it endures and may even cause ripple effects in the wider world of food, like rarebit or, to pull from a different industry, The Devil Wears Prada’s famous riff on fashion cerulean chain reaction.
There’s something endearing when novelty foods start with a single restaurant/bakery/candymaker or when it arises from a specific place and cultural setting—that is to say, novelty is charming when there’s a story to tell, even if there’s not a single individual behind it. Quirky comestibles at a state fair or local carnival are a delight in large part because there are so many and the whole place is fundamentally different from everyday life—it’s an entire ecosystem of novelties and, critically, the vendors are all independently operated, with their own distinct personalities.
To my mind, though, the charm of food innovation quickly disappears when it’s a giant corporation trying to go viral and get free advertising with a product they have no intention of selling to a mass audience for an extended period of time.
* * *
In a 1993 essay on Disney World, Susan Willis wrote a line that’s stuck with me since I read it more than 20 years ago: “Amusement is the commodified negation of play.” Packaged, corporate entertainment that directly engages you can be fun, no question—but because of how it’s constructed and developed and marketed, it’s not an open-ended exercise that can go anywhere. You’re playing by rules someone else set to maximize their own profits.
It’s hard to say that without sounding like a total cynic who wants to gripe about the ways people find enjoyment. That’s not my intent! I recently took my daughters to Shake Shack and the amusement park at the Mall of America after they got their Covid shots at the mall’s clinic the other week. I get it: amusement feels good and fast-food burgers taste good and, you know, all things in moderation.
But still … man. Sometimes those things are terrible. Sometimes it’s hard to see the reactions to things like [insert new corporate novelty food here] and not sputter with frustration and think about retreating to the woods and writing a manifesto that begins, We give companies too much credit for being interesting and fun, when all they’re usually doing is pushing some focus-group-approved bullshit that’s not half as creative as the stuff you’d get if you offered any given five-year-old free access to a well-stocked pantry.
“These gimmicky offerings have taken off in recent years because they're carefully crafted, not just for physical consumption, but for digital consumption as well,” writer Adam Chandler (friend of Snack Stack and author of the excellent book Drive-Thru Dreams) told the BBC a while back. “They play well to younger crowds on social media, tend to be highly Instagrammable, and inspire curiosity, attention and disgust wherever they go.”
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Chandler was talking about fast food, specifically, but the same concept applies in broader terms. Corporations have been pushing novelty foods basically forever (the candy Boston Beans was an attempt to get on the trend of real Boston beans; Chikin in a Biskit and its spin-off crackers, seen in the photo at the top of this post, were also a clear attempt to create a Quirky Snack; I could go on). For most of that time, the manufacturers intended those products to succeed on their own terms. Easy Cheese was marketed as enjoyably offbeat from the start, but Nabisco intended it to stick around for the long term, as it has.
Now, novelty foods are often “limited edition” deals—sometimes very limited—intended not to sell but to make a brief-but-big splash for the brand. The Cheez-It Tostada [again, update as needed] is only available in a single Taco Bell in California, but that’s not the headline news. (Similarly, Grey Poupon ice cream isn’t available on the manufacturer’s website, just at Walmart—but you wouldn’t know that from all the stories.)
Companies don’t actually want to sell you these foods as much as they want to sell you on a broader, longer-term notion that they’re cool and approachable and don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a cynical attempt to tell you how chill they are. We would do well to understand the game they’re playing and not shower them with the attention that they crave so much.
Anyway, that’s my take on the Cheez-It Tostada or whatever we’re talking about today!