December 10, 2013

Taste Bud: The return of a fiery friend

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have been in the news in recent years thanks to their apparent addictive quality — many schools have banned them due to kids’ obsession with them.

They’re good, but I have an obsession of my own: Lay’s Flamin’ Hot potato chips. When I discovered these crispy wonders in the mid-1990s, I became so obsessed with them that my then-wife would buy them for me for Christmas and birthdays. The first time she did so, I chuckled at getting potato chips as a gift.

She said, “But, dear, you go through a bag a night.”

She was right. Every night, I would sit in front of the TV and munch a whole bag — and I’m not talking about one of those little two-for-a-dollar bags, either. I’m talking about a full-size bag. I was addicted.

But then one day, for no apparent reason, the chips simply disappeared from store shelves. Cheetos and trail mixes still got the Flamin’ Hot coating — which, incidentally, was invented in the 1970s by a Frito Lay janitor — but no potato chips.

What’s funny is that the coating isn’t really all that spicy. Based on the ingredients printed on the bag, the weird, bright red coating, which will stick to your fingers like super glue, doesn’t even contain any hot peppers. Rather, the description says it contains “natural flavor (including natural extractives of red pepper).”

I’m not even sure what that means.

But for some reason, the flavor is just one of those my taste buds adore. I prefer the chip because I like the way the Flamin’ Hot stuff tastes with the potato flavor. It’s just a better blend than the Cheetos, if you ask me. I like them by themselves. I like them with a nice, sharp cheddar. I like them with a beer or with a Pepsi. But mostly with a beer. Heck, I am munching on some as I type this.

Does the relative scarcity of these chips feed my obsession? Perhaps. Over the years, the chips would occasionally pop up in this area, but I could never find a consistent source. I would literally go years at a time without seeing Flamin’ Hot chips anywhere. And yes, I would specifically go looking for them, sometimes even checking convenience stores during gas stops on road trips.

And then, a few weeks ago, lightning struck: I walked into my neighborhood Thornton’s, and the first thing I saw when I entered was four medium-sized bags (2 7/8 ounces) of Flamin’ Hot chips sitting there amongst the Funyons and Doritos.

My heart nearly leapt out of my chest — and I’m being totally serious when I say I had a momentary adrenalin rush. I don’t even remember why I went into Thornton’s that day, but I scooped up all four bags without hesitation. I took them home, and later that evening, I opened one and basked in the wonder of the return of an old friend — an old friend that, frankly, I’d given up hope of ever seeing again.

My next thought was, Will there be any more? So, I knew I had to hoard what I had until I saw proof the supply would be replenished. My next visit to Thornton’s yielded nothing but an empty space where those four bags had been. But a few days later, there were four more bags. I pounced.

And then, a week or so after that, I happened to be in a different convenience store and spotted the aforementioned mini-bags (1 1/8 ounces) — bunches of them! There must have been 20, and I wanted so badly to buy them all, but I stopped at “only” 10. At this point, I still had four or five of the larger bags in my pantry, and I had renewed confidence Flamin’ Hot chips might stick around a while this time.

What has happened in recent weeks is that I’ve stopped buying every bag I see; it’s difficult, but I feel, well, rather stupid to be hoarding potato chips like some self-indulgent, hedonistic junk-food junkie who is also addicted to endorphins. Or like some unbalanced recluse who is preparing for the potato-chip apocalypse.

However, for full disclosure, before I began writing this, I checked my cabinet and found I was down to “only” seven bags — three big and four small. This only means that, later this afternoon, I’ll be visiting my friends at Thornton’s.

And I’m not going to tell you which Thornton’s either, lest LEO readers discover my source. You see, I may have a problem.