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Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy
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Goodbye, Mr. Chip

Comment

All too recently, a great American inventor who single-handedly transformed pop culture with his unique ability to make us want what we didn't even KNOW we wanted died.

And so did Steve Jobs.

A week or so before the Apple visionary's demise came the death of Arch West. He was 97. Even if you don't know his name, you know his chip, and it wasn't made of silicon. West invented the Dorito.

That was back in the '60s, when Frito-Lay was content with its Frito Bandito and, ay-yi-yi-yi, his Fritos corn chips — crispy, thick and curling like a bag full of Ripley's Believe It or Not fingernails. (Or maybe you never saw them that way. Lucky you.) The company also dominated America's taste buds with the Lay part of its empire: the fabulous potato chip, crispy, thin, gently arching like a bulimic ballerina. (And maybe you just saw them as salty potato slices.) Anyway, between these two marvels, the people at the company didn't think they needed another chip. Then West, a marketing exec at the company, told them that oh, yes, they did.

West got the idea on a family vacation to Southern California — some obits say Mexico — when the group stopped at a snack stand and ordered a bag of fried tortilla bits. West took these addictive crunchers and sprinkled them with the stuff of dreams (and ruined white shirts): cheese dust.

Today, Doritos is a nearly $5 billion brand. The chips come in more than 20 flavors, including Late Night All Nighter Cheeseburger, which may refer to eating a cheeseburger during an all-nighter or possibly to pulling an all-nighter as a result of a cheeseburger eaten earlier.

What is slightly disturbing about the demise of their inventor is not the fact that it makes you wonder, "Why bother eating whole-wheat quinoa crisps when you can make just shy of 100 by not only eating but CREATING the junkiest junk food alive?" Nor is it all THAT disturbing that West's coffin allegedly was showered with Doritos after being lowered into the grave.

(No word on a mound of guacamole.) No, what's disturbing is that West is being honored as the creator of a snack food that was already hugely popular before he sampled his first bagful.

Yet this is what we do: We celebrate the person or company that takes an age-old food or story or practice or thing and gives it a new, non-generic identity. Instead of "fried tortilla," it's a Dorito. Instead of "meat between two slices of bread," it's a sandwich, thanks to the Earl of same. And how about the rather ancient idea of kids twirling barrel rings around their middles? Do we call those anything other than Hula-Hoops now? The goofy fill-in-the-blank game that kids used to write themselves? Now it's Mad Libs. The age-old flying pie tin is a Frisbee, which rhymes with Disney, which, for its part, took every folk tale already out there, from "Snow White" to "Sleeping Beauty," and not only claimed it as its own but also now goes after anyone else suspected of trading on the Disney version of same.

Do the folks who pluck ideas from pop culture really deserve the same acclaim as actual inventors? Maybe not quite. Yet we do owe them a thanks for getting the snack or game or MP3 player to prime time, often by adding a sprinkling of genius — such as cheese dust.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)" and "Who's the Blonde That Married What's-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can't Remember Right Now." To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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