It’s hard for me to explain my love of Cheez-Its.
As an adult, I’ve lost my taste for most of my childhood-favorite processed snacks. Goldfish are cardboard. Ritz Bits’ cheese is fake. Original-flavor Doritos have a hard-to-ignore aftertaste of indoor-playground sock-sweat. Between meals, I generally prefer apples and carrots to anything that comes in a pack.
Yet every time I pass a vending machine, that iconic red-and-orange foil baggie still tempts me from its depths. I am helpless against the Cheez-Its siren song. Worse is the quantity: once I cave to the initial craving, I’ll devour one packet, two, a whole box. Exposure to these snacks can throw off my entire carefully calibrated adult-person diet. I revert back into a feral 6-year-old, grinning insanely with wads of orange crumb stuck between the teeth.
From whence this awesome power?
Or, to put it another way: why are Cheez-Its so damn good?
PART ONE: FLAVOR
This first reason is obvious. Cheez-Its are better than the impostor snacks listed above mostly because they taste something like actual cheese. They’re saltier, greasier—more real. (The fact that this has been underlined by a slightly obnoxious ad campaign doesn’t make it any less true.)
But at the same time, Cheez-Its transcend mere cheesiness. It seems like there must be something more addictive in the recipe than cheddar.
I know that at least one professional chef agrees with me on this. Girl & The Goat (809 W. Randolph St.) pastry chef Mathew Rice, who snacks on Cheez-Its often in his kitchen, says they have a “legitimate flavor” that homemade substitutes “can’t duplicate.” In an effort to capture this elusive taste, Rice even bakes with the crackers. He coated them in peanut butter, melted chocolate, powdered sugar, and cocoa to create the puppy-chow-like crumble atop Little Goat Diner’s (820 W. Randolph St.) Cheez-It sundae, and even ground them into flour to flavor his boss Stephanie Izard’s wedding cake.
Rice insists that using Cheez-Its in desserts isn’t counterintuitive. “A lot of people…think it sounds gross,” he said. “But…it’s really just using [the Cheez-It] as a salty element.” He compares the resulting sweet-savory flavor contrast to that of a chocolate-covered pretzel. “Even though it’s cheese, the flavors really work together,” he added.
Whatever Cheez-Its’ unduplicatable, unexpectedly chocolate-friendly flavor really is, you won’t be hearing about it from the company. Its reps won’t even identify the actual variety of cheese that gets baked into the little square crackers. If you press them on it, they only spout tautologies, as in this FAQ forwarded to me by their PR department:
“Q: What kind of cheese do you use in Cheez-It crackers?”
“A: We use 100% real cheese.”
One final point about Cheez-Its’ flavor magic: it only extends to a few of the 25 extant Cheez-It varieties. For instance, Reduced Fat, Whole Grain, and even Hot & Spicy all make the grade for me. They retain at least some of the original’s iconic flavor, give or take some calories, carbs, or Tabasco.
However, I will fight anyone who tries to make me eat Cheez-Its made from non-standard cheeses, such as White Cheddar or (shudder) Pepper Jack. Lacking the tangy bite of the original formula, they coat your tongue and teeth in bland flouriness, which, at least in Pepper Jack’s case, eventually turns sour, like an aftertaste of vomit. Point is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Whatever “100% real cheese” they put in classic Cheez-Its, that should be the only type I have to taste.
PART TWO: NOSTALGIA
Of course, the real key to any comfort food isn’t flavor: it’s history. Cheez-Its and I have a long one.
When I think of “foods I was raised on,” they are what immediately pop into my head. My mother, who grew up less than an hour from the original Cheez-Its factory in Sayreville, New Jersey, is never without a bowl of them at her elbow. Though she cooked for me plenty growing up, I don’t think she ever loved a hot meal as much as she loves those little square crackers. (When I texted her that I was writing this article, she wrote back that she was curious to know if “anyone else found them an adequate substitute for Prozac.”) I learned from her that the best way to enjoy them was with a lightly fizzling glass of Coke—classic, never diet. Whenever I taste that combination of flavors, I can’t help but think of home.
I think it’s possible to become attached to Cheez-Its even without childhood memories like these. Like Hamm’s or Old Style beer, they’ve come in basically the same packaging for decades—85 years, in fact. Each box comes emblazoned with the old-timey logo of Cheez-Its’ original owner, the Sunshine Biscuit Company. (The company was actually bought by Keebler in 1996). The company’s history—what little of it is available online—has its homey touches. One Chowhound commenter who grew up in Sayreville fondly recalls a neighbor fetching them “bags of Cheez-its still warm from the production line.”
I began my Cheez-Its quest unsure of whether my love for them would survive it. A long-standing affection blinds you to the flaws of its object, and it was always possible that greater scrutiny of my favorite snack cracker would turn up a negative I had previously overlooked: a noxious chemical ingredient, a gross aftertaste. Too many of my childhood favorites—not only foods, but also vacation spots, TV shows, and movies—have failed this test over the years. As I age, I have less and less to be nostalgic about.
I am glad to report I found no such thing. Instead, I’ve returned from my researches even more confident that, like my mother, I’ll continue consuming Cheez-Its in vast quantities into middle and old age. That’s one family tradition that’s definitely worth maintaining.
Photo credit: Nathalie Lagerfeld, Groupon