This Spring a friend of mine started the Great Puffed Snack Roundup, which has turned into nearly a half year extravaganza of puffed cheesy snack tastings. The brand that started this snack roundup was the new Simply Cheetos White Cheddar Jalapeno Puff. Our little dedicated group has tasted other brands and flavors, like local Grippos Barbecue Cheese Nibs. The consensus seems to be that the old Eagle Brand Cheese Balls were the best – great crunch, strong cheesy flavor and fried. The whole roundup has opened debates like what form – the ball, the curl, or the irregular Cheeto shape – is the best vehicle for a puffed corn snack.
The cheese snacks segment of the Puffed and Extruded category of Salted Snacks took in $2.5 billion in 2018, an increase of 9.6 percent. Frito-Lay’s Cheetos brand is king here, up 6.2 percent to $1.8 billion. Simply Cheetos – the brand of the White Cheddar Jalapeno puff – grew 51.4 percent to $91.2 million—a strong example of the power of the trendy clean label product.
A recent trip to New Orleans had me tasting the local brand of cheese puffs called Elmer’s Chee Wees. Their mascot is a cute drunken mouse leaning against a French Quarter lamppost – a mascot that Cheetos knocked off from 1971 to 1976, before introducing Chester Cheetah in 1984. Although they come in a variety of flavors – original, spicy, BBQ – I chose the green onion version. I shared these with one of the six tasters in this snack roundup group and Chee Wees passed the test of good flavor, not too salty, good texture, and no weird mouthfeel or coating. They’re baked, not fried, like Cheetos and other brands.
With Elmer’s Chee Wees I had no idea the legacy I was biting into. It was Elmer’s Candy Company, the oldest family-owned candy company in America, who invented the cheesy corn puff snack back in 1933. The five Elmer brothers, Augustus, Leonard, Oskar, Alphonse and Morel visited the Chicago Exposition of 1933 and found a livestock feed machine made by the Flakall Corporation of Beloit, Wisconsin, in which they saw huge potential for puffed snack goodness.
When we think of New Orleans candy, the praline is the first confection that comes to mind. But the Elmer Candy Company is known for their Heavenly Hash (1923) and Gold Brick (1936) Chocolate Eggs which New Orleanians have found for decades in their Easter baskets. The HH Egg is a chocolate covered marshmallow egg with two roasted pecans inside, while the GB Egg is a milk chocolate covered bar with chopped roasted pecans on top.
The Elmer Candy Company started in 1855 by German immigrant pastry chef, Christoph Heinrich Miller. His son-in-law Augustus Elmer Sr. took over the company and renamed it after himself. Augustus was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, to an immigrant father from the Swiss Canton of Glarius near Baden Wuertemburg, Germany. His five sons joined the business and soon the Depression hit, sending them in a struggle to diversify their products to keep the business afloat.
The original 1932 patent drawing on the feed machine that would become the first puffed snack machine.
As with most great inventions, the puffing aspect of the machine the Elmers saw was discovered in a happy accident. Originally designed as a corn flaker for livestock feed, when wet corn was added to the machine to clean it, the frictional heat raised the temperature of the moisture, which escapes as water vapor, causing the corn curl to “puff,” similar to the way water vapor pops popcorn. The puffed curls are then baked (or fried as with Cheetos) and flavored. The Elmer Brothers purchased a machine from Flakall at the Agricultural building at the Chicago expo. They brought it back to New Orleans, disassembled and reengineered it to make a better corn curl, and became the first to start producing and selling the American corn curl snack.
The name Chee Wees came a few years later as a result of a local contest Morel Elmer Sr., Sales Manager, initiated. His son, Morel Elmer, Jr., then worked with a bag manufacturer to develop the first bag packaging for snack foods. Known as glassine, the waxy translucent product is similar to the bags Hubig’s pies were sold in. This was decades before Frito-Lay or other snack food companies existed.
The Snack food industry exploded pre World War II. The Frito Corporation joined forces with the Lay Corporations to become Frito-Lay. With that marriage and the investment money from Joan Crawford , the new behemoth started buying up and producing snack food products other than the Frito’s corn chips and Lay’s potato chip. In the 1950s, Frito-Lay began producing a cheese curl just like Elmer’s through permission granted by Elmer Candy Corporation because they held the rights to the process of making the cheese curl. That licensing agreement ended in the 1960s when the Elmer family sold the Elmer Candy Corporation, thus opening up the cheese curl category to other manufacturers, and the rest, his history.
It didn’t take long for the cheesy corn puff snack to go international, and I’ve added three of those into the roundup – ones from El Salvador, Holland, and Japan. I found Buca Deli’s Gustitos Super Churro Picante from El Salvador at a Guatemalan market on St. Lawrence in Price Hill. This had a good spice, but had a gritty crunch and a bit of a mouth coating. The South American Market for puffed corn snacks seems to be huge, so that could start its own tasting roundup.
I also found an Asian brand made by Calbee’s in Tokyo (in business since 1949) called Four Seas Grill-A-Corn Spicy at CAM International Market in Sharonville. The brand also comes in Lobster, Eel and BBQ flavors – probably the most interesting flavors I’ve seen in the category. The spicy flavor had some good heat, a good texture and crunch, and good flavor, but are higher carbs than other brands
My friend Debbie recommends the Smith’s Nibbit Sticks from her childhood native Holland, now owned by a UK company. She says they are fluffy and less dense than most puffed cheese snacks.
So the puffed cheesy tastings continue, but its good to know and have tasted the CheeWees that started the $9 billion dollar puffed and extruded snack category.