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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

A Town Split By a Play About the 1980s AIDS Epidemic

Chelsea Purgahn/The Press via AP

In 1999, theater director Raymond Caldwell staged Angels in America at Kilgore College. Kilgore is small town in east Texas’ piney woods, and this play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic created a huge schism in this conservative, religious community. Writer Wes Ferguson grew up in Kilgore. Twenty years after the performance, Ferguson’s Texas Monthly article examines the effects this Pulitzer Prize-winning play had on the Kilgore residents through its brief performance. Angels in America has enormous artistic merit, but “artistic merit carried only so much weight in Kilgore,” writes Fergesun.

Ferguson edited Kilgore College’s student paper, and he published a story about the play and its potential controversy. Unfortunately, some people blamed Ferguson’s catchy headline for igniting the trouble that followed, but Kilgore was already a town divided. It was a town where two of Ferguson’s high school classmates murdered an innocent man because of his sexual orientation, a town where one of the parents of the play’s lead actor insisited he not perform the role because they feared for his life and for their reputation, and a town where many Kilgore College professors supported their students who acted on their values, no matter how much they differed from their parents’ or their peers’ values.

While chatting with old friends recently, I have discovered that my world-view wasn’t the only one transformed by the arrival of Angels in America in the Piney Woods twenty years ago. Danea Males, then a photojournalist for the Flare, whose father had not allowed her to see the play, says that photographing the protests was the first time she stepped away from the fundamentalist church she’d grown up in. “It was a defining moment,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to question things. I was supposed to have faith that guided my path. But the petitions and the protests—they were so ugly and mean-spirited.” Today, Males is an art professor at a university in South Carolina.

Last spring, I was visiting family in Kilgore when Adams, through sheer coincidence, also happened to arrive in town. A longtime New York resident, he’d just completed the twelve-week run of a play in Florida called Straight White Men, and he’d come to East Texas to see family too and to talk with a local film producer who was interested in a movie script he’d written about Kilgore’s brush with Angels. We met at a pool hall in Longview. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and the crack of billiard balls, he could still recite his favorite line from the play: “From such a strong desire to be good, they feel very far from goodness when they fail.” It was a sentiment that strongly resonated with Adams, who, long before he took on the role of the spiritually tormented Joe Pitt, had twice asked God to save him. “My grandfather baptized me, and I didn’t think it was good enough, so I got baptized again,” he said. “I didn’t resonate with being gay, necessarily, but I resonated with trying to fit into something you don’t fit into”—namely, for him, fundamentalist theology and stifling small-town culture.

Four months after Adams appeared in Angels, his uncle Jason killed himself. Adams had no idea his uncle was gay, nor that he had AIDS. “When that happened,” he said, “I was galvanized.” Upon leaving Kilgore, he was accepted into London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, from which he graduated in 2003. “Angels in America defined who I am,” Adams said. “All my career, I’ve tried to be a torch for marginalized people.” In 2012, Adams wrote and directed an off-Broadway play titled The Man-Made Rock, about repressed East Texans. Joseph Magee, who over the years had made his peace with Caldwell and everyone involved with Angels, was the major backer of Adams’s production.

Adams’s mother was changed by the experience too. “It opened my eyes up,” she said recently. “Justin’s an actor, he’s around all sorts of people, and I have really become fond of them—it’s not my business if they’re gay. I like them as a person, and I’m not gonna judge them. There was a time I did. I was worried what other people would think.”

Adams’s activism has long outlasted that of the protesters, who abandoned their cause before the end of the four-night, sold-out run. The Gregg County Commissioners Court did make good on its threat to yank financial support from the Shakespeare Festival, though. “What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears,” Commissioner Danny Craig told the Houston Press, admitting that he’d never seen a Shakespeare play. Donations from theater supporters around the country more than made up the difference, as did a check presented to Holda when he received a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for his refusal to cancel the play.

“I would not want to go through it again, but I don’t regret having taken a stand,” Holda says now. “Without the confrontation that occurred, Kilgore might not have awakened as quickly to the realities of its own community. The world was changing.”

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How To Destroy Texas While Helping The Coal Economy

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

Natural gas, wind, and solar power are all cutting into coal’s profitability, so mining companies are looking for ways to reduce expenses, including reducing clean-up efforts. In their three-part collaboration with Grist and The Texas Tribune, journalists Kiah Collier and Naveena Sadasivam expose the ways the good state of Texas allows coal companies to bypass federal laws about land reclamation in order to save millions in clean-up costs. “Coal companies are required to restore land used for coal mining to the shape it was in before they started digging it up,” Collier and Sadasivam write. This process of reclamation is meant to return mined land to its former condition so people can farm, graze, and even live on it again. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

One article tells how a company violated its contract and federal law and ruined large swaths of a family’s 25,000-acre ranch. One looks at how the town of Rockdale pinned its hopes to an old coal mine that was not properly restored, land where supposedly “pristine lakes” are actually old waste-water pools. The other article looks at the free land the Luminant coal company gave to Sulphur Springs, in East Texas, who intends to turn it into parkland ─ except the company is trying to avoid properly removing a huge mound of toxic dirt and a large, acidic wastewater pool. Instead, they want to cover the lake with a bit more dirt, even though that has proven ineffective for containing toxins, and the city wants to let them and turn the mound, which locals call Mount Thermo, into seating for an amphitheater, and the lake into a fishing pond. An amphitheater built atop toxic heavy metals! It’s lunacy! It’s also obviously about money. The free land is worth $25 million, and leaving the mess saves the company an estimated $4 million. To sell the idea to the public, interested parties have framed the toxic mound as a “community asset,” a gift from the company. Well, isn’t that swell?

In a prepared statement, Luminant spokesperson Meranda Cohn said that the company is committed to completing restoration of the property, including addressing the high acidity at the pit. She said the mound is being left in place at the city’s request and that any implication that Luminant’s deal with Sulphur Springs was solely a cost-saving measure was wrong.

“This transformative project would benefit the people of Sulphur Springs and East Texas for decades to come,” Cohn said. “This is a great example of how a public-private partnership between the city, Luminant, and the [Railroad Commission] can be a win for all.”

In 2017, the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association, of which Luminant is a member, honored Maxwell for his vision, granting him its “elected official of the year” award for “leading the charge to breathe new life into this community asset.”

Not everyone’s on board with this toxic plan.

Ryan King, a biologist at Baylor University who has served as an expert witness in half a dozen federal lawsuits against coal companies, said staff concerns over the company’s reclamation plan are well founded.

“The idea of an amphitheater and having a lot of people right where you can potentially have a lot of airborne dust that is almost certainly going to contain toxic materials seems like a very risky situation,” he said. “That community is either uninformed or being misled about the potential hazards of doing such a thing.”

But Maxwell, the city manager, doesn’t see the problem. He said he trusts the Railroad Commission and Luminant will work it out, and that the company will do the right thing. “We don’t see a lot of risk there,” he said.

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Should We Create New Life As Our Planet Struggles to Support Life In General?

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Procreation is one of many issues environmentally minded people wrestle with when thinking about our role in combating or worsening climate change. If it isn’t completely irresponsible to have children on a warming planet, how many children are too many? Aren’t parents damning their kids to a life of ecological chaos and economic instability? Or will some of these kids actually save us from self-destruction? In a new probing essay, Sierra magazine‘s adventure and lifestyle editor, Katie O’Reilly, takes us along her journey to figure out whether or not to have kids during our time of human-made climate change. She isn’t just environmentally conscious. She works for Sierra, the print extension of the Sierra Club, the largest and oldest grassroots environmental group in the U.S, founded by none other than John Muir. “I’m worried that if I procreate,” she writes, “I will contribute to melting ice caps, rising seas, and extreme weather.” To help her make a decision about parenting, she visits what’s called a clarity counselor, and the junction of her climate anxiety and her reproductive anxiety is a timely situation many readers will recognize from their own lives, though one we will not have articulated as clearly, or as humorously, as O’Reilly.

When Davidman started clarity counseling in 1991, her typical clients were professional women in their late thirties or early forties. About five years ago, though, clients in their early thirties started coming in with climate anxiety. Generally, Davidman finds that as she works with these clients, other anxieties emerge. “It’s easier and more socially acceptable to say ‘climate’ than ‘I’m really ambivalent about having children.'” Ambivalence, she says, may be the least acceptable response in a pronatalist society that equates motherhood with women’s manifest destiny. “We often get judged and shamed for not knowing. But the climate argument shuts people right up.”

This makes me wonder whether I’m pinning all my unresolved personal issues onto the poor climate. Last Thanksgiving, when I mentioned to my mother that global warming was giving my ovaries pause, she rolled her eyes and told me that if she’d taken the out du jour back in 1984—in the midst of Cold War nuclear tension—I wouldn’t be here to navel-gaze about whether life is worth living without polar bears and autumn leaves.

Like the threat of nuclear annihilation, climate change demands a reckoning of everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about security and the future, but its fires, floods, and famines are already causing existing children to suffer. So try as I might, I can’t see my reproductive anxiety as something to just sequester in a jar. And I know that to some extent, my ambivalence is a privilege—unlike many women around the world, I have a choice about whether I have kids. Still, this doesn’t make the decision easier.

O’Reilly talked with other people about her reproductive predicament, including Blythe Pepino , a young British artist-activist who used to want children, until she accepted what she sees as the inevitable collapse of civilization. But as O’Reilly points out, Pepino’s position is not without issues:

Critics of Pepino’s approach point out that corporate power structures got us into this mess, and not having kids won’t get us out of it. They say that shoveling more guilt and shame for systemic, societal ills onto individuals, especially women—effectively expecting them to stave off the apocalypse with their uteri—detracts from holding the fossil fuel industry accountable.

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Can We Ever Make It Suntory Time Again?

Keith Bishop / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,939 words)

Bic Camera looked like many of the other loud, brightly colored electronics stores I’d seen in Japan, just bigger. Mostly, it was a respite from the cold. The appliances and electronics that jammed its interior gave no indication of its dizzyingly good liquor selection, nor did the many inexpensive aged Japanese whiskies hint that affordable bottles were about to become a thing of the past, or that I’d nurture a profound remorse once they did. When I found Bic Camera’s wholly unexpected liquor department, I lifted two bottles of high-end Japanese whisky from the shelf, wandered the aisles studying the labels, had a baffling interaction with a clerk, and put the bottles back on the shelf. All I had to do was pay for them. I didn’t.

Commercial Japanese whisky has been around since at least 1929, so during my first trip to Japan (and at home in the U.S.), there was no reason to think that all the aged Japanese whiskies that were readily available in the early 2000s would soon achieve holy grail status. In 2007, there were $100 bottles of Yamazaki 18-year sitting forlornly on a shelf at my local BevMo. One bottle now sells for more than $400 at online auctions; some online stores sell them for $700.

Yoichi 10, Yoichi 12, Hibiki 17 and 21, Taketsuru 12 and 17 — in 2014, rare and discontinued bottles lined store shelves, reasonably priced compared to their current $300 to $600 price tags. Those were great years. I call them BTB — before the boom. Before the boom, a bottle of Yamazaki 12 cost $60. After the boom, a Seattle liquor store priced their last bottle of Yamazaki 12 at $225. Before the boom, Taketsuru 12 cost $20 in Japan and $70 in the States. After the boom, online auctions sell bottles for more than $220.

Before the boom, Karuizawa casks sat, dusty and abandoned, in shuttered distilleries. After the boom, a bottle of Karuizawa 1964 sold for $118,420, the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold at auction, until a Yamazaki 50 sold for $129,186 the following year, then another went for $343,000 15 months later.

Before the boom, whisky tasted of rich red fruits and cereal grains. After the boom, it tasted of regret.

I’ve spent the past five years wishing I could do things over. I remember my trips to Japan fondly — the new friends, the food and record stores, the Kyoto temples and solitary hikes — except for the whisky, whose absence coats my mouth with the proverbial bitter taste. I replay the time I walked into a grocery store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood and found a shelf lined with Taketsuru 12, four bottles wide and four deep, at $20 apiece; it starts at $170 now. I look at the photos I took of Hibiki 12 for $34, Yoichi 12 for $69, Taketsuru 21 for $89. I tell friends how I’d visited the Isetan Department Store’s liquor department in Shinjuku, where they had a 12-year-old sherried Karuizawa bottled exclusively for Isetan for barely more than $100, alongside a blend of Hanyu and Kawaski grain whisky that famed distiller Ichiro Akuto did exclusively for the store. Staff wouldn’t let me photograph or touch anything, but I could have afforded both bottles. They now sell for $1,140 and $1,290, respectively. I torture myself by revisiting my unfortunate logic, how I squandered my limited funds: buying inexpensive bottles to drink during the trip, instead of a few big-ticket purchases to take home.

Aaron, I’ve thought more times that I could count, you are such a fucking idiot.

To time travel, I look at photos of old Japanese whisky bottles in Facebook groups, like they are some sort of beverage porn, and wonder: Who am I? What have I become? There’s enough incredible scotch available here at home. Why do I — and the others whose interest spiked prices and made the bottles we loved inaccessible — care so much about Japanese whisky? Read more…

Seagulls Who Eat People Food Poop People Food on Protected Lands

Alain Apaydin/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images

Human beings are unquestionably the worst offender when it comes to destroying the planet, but now California seagulls have gotten in on the action by eating fast food and messing up the protected Channel Islands. You can’t blame them. In-N-Out is delicious. Even if you prefer Five Guys or Shake Shack, you have to admit that cheeseburger crumbs taste better than the raw barnacles and anchovies these gulls once lived on. If the gulls lived closer to Shake Shack, they’d eat there, too. As Deborah Netburn writes in her new Los Angeles Times article, “[W]hen it comes to people food, they are willing to try just about anything.” Netburn follows ecologist Ana Sofia Guerra who studies the gulls’ eating habits to understand how their industrialized diet is shaping their island habitat. You thought homo sapiens are slovenly? Picture a gull throwing up a corndog, stick and all. Guerra watched that.

She’s tracked sea gulls on ventures from their pristine island home to an In-N-Out in El Segundo, a catering kitchen in Compton and the Roadium Open Air Market in Torrance.

On one trip, a bird she monitored flew to a row of Vietnamese restaurants in Anaheim, then visited a bakery a few blocks away for dessert.

These are amusing images, because animals doing human things and wearing human clothes are hilarious. Unfortunately, the gulls’ modern American diet is affecting the Islands’ animals, plants, and soil chemistry, but scientists are trying to understand exactly how. Their seafood-filled poop and vomit once helped nourish the Channel Islands, so their new people food diet is surely shaping it, too.

Seabirds, and their poop, play an important role in island ecosystems by moving nutrients from the mainland and the ocean to the island shores, said Young, who is advising Guerra on her research. It stands to reason that the gulls’ penchant for human junk food could ripple throughout the food chain.

“Based on what we know from other systems, this might have large-scale transformative impacts,” Young said.

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Hard Shell Tacos Aren’t As Hardcore Gringo As You Think

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Growing up in Arizona, eating Sonoran-style Mexican food with a family raised on Mexican food, I developed embarrassingly strong opinions, and what I thought of as a discerning palate, by my teen years. Opinion 1: Tex-Mex was trash. Opinion 2: Mission-Style burritos were an affront to all burritos, stuffed with worthless lettuce and rice. Opinion 3: Do not put sunflower seeds or squash blossoms inside my tamales. Opinion 4: Hard shell tacos weren’t true tacos, they were more vertical tostada sandwiches, a Frankenstein abomination that Taco Bell unleashed to give white America something “exotic” to eat without leaving the comfortable confines of its white world. Opinion 5: I was an asshole. Actually, #5 was a fact. I also still stand behind Opinion 2, but as an adult I can see that, like so many teenagers, I hadn’t read much food history. I ate. I opined. I talked out of my behind. Thankfully age has softened my opinions and high self-regard, and I have read what author Gustavo Arellano calls “taco history.” To that history Andrew Fiouzi at MEL Magazine has added an oral history of the hard shell taco that examines its origins, authenticity, and the way fast food appropriated it. Turns out, Taco Bell is still culpable, but hard shell tacos started as authentic Mexican cuisine, though certain details are hazy.

Arellano: Now, if you’re trying to talk about who created the taco shell in terms of mass marketing them, you could make the argument that George Ashley of Absolute Mexican Food did that, because in the late 1930s, way before Glenn Bell or Juvencio Maldonado [the first guy to apply for a patent to do hard shell tacos in mass quantities], he was selling these metal taco molds for making your own taco kits at home.

Pilcher: Of course, the next step was transferring the taco to the taco shell. Glen Bell, who becomes the founder of Taco Bell, claims that he invented this Mexican-American version of a Mexican dish for a fast food audience in the 1950s in San Bernardino, California. But in fact, we have the patent application for various versions of this taco shell that were filed in the 1940s already by Mexican entrepreneurs.

The fact is, my teenage years were fueled as much by Taco Bell tacos as by traditional red chile burros. But Enchiritos? I mourned the day the chain discontinued this weird, enchilada-like Tex-Mex item smothered in cheap red sauce. Nachos? Done right, they were divine, and by “right” I meant anything using shredded cheese instead of that liquid bowling alley cheese gringos pump from a metal drum. I eat Tex-Mex now, but I also know that taste is too subjective to hold over people, and comfort food and trash are universal loves that we must respect. Find your own liquid nacho cheese and claim it. I will: I love hard shell tacos, the kind filled with simmered ground beef, anemic iceburg lettuce, and waxy cheddar cheese. As much as I looked down on them as a snobbish teen and college kid, and as much as I still prefer real street tacos filled with birria, carnitas, and even — snort — pig snout, once in a while I want a shitty, white-as-rice hard shell. 

My wife grew up in parts of the Midwest with fewer authentic Mexican restaurants. She loves hard shell tacos, and her love reminded me how much I used to, too. The first time I went to Chicago, I sought out Chicago dogs and beef sandwiches. On our last day, we found a hot dog place that sold hard shell tacos, and we ordered a bunch of them instead of char-dogs. They were as cheaply made as we like, and it reminded me that I had always loved the tacos dorados that certain Phoenix Mexican restaurants sold, which where often made with corn tortillas and fried whole, individually, and tasted like the fried tacos my parents made, based on a recipe my Granny picked up somewere in southern Arizona. Sorry. I’m going on and on about myself, but what I’m tryin to say is that before I read Fiouzi’s piece, I knew where my culinary snobbery came from, but I didn’t know where hard shell tacos came from, and how they became associated with gringo fast food. Reading this brief piece will inform you as much as make fellow cheap-taco-eaters feel seen, though surely others will feel more justified in their snobbish hatred of the hard shell. We don’t care what those people think.

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Working To Live Often Means Giving Up Your Life

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The gig economy and operations like Amazon and Uber demand flexible schedules and constant availability, including weekends, which destroys much opportunity for a set schedule outside of work. In the traditional work force, high salary positions often require long hours and porous boundaries, dissolving the barrier between work and life and eating up the off-time that once contained a social life. Workers pay the price: without schedules that overlap with friends and family, people don’t socialize as much, see their kids, or spouses, or ever relax, and this all takes a heavy toll on society. For The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz examines the many social costs of America’s work-life problem, and what she calls the cult of busyness.

When so many people have long or unreliable work hours, or worse, long and unreliable work hours, the effects ripple far and wide. Families pay the steepest price. Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.

It’s an enlightening but depressing piece, but essential if we are to survive what we have either opted into, or had imposed on us by the job market. Shulevitz compares this American paradigm to the failed Soviet experiment called nepreryvka, meaning the “continuous workweek.”

What makes the changing cadences of labor most nepreryvka-like, however, is that they divide us not just at the micro level, within families and friend groups, but at the macro level, as a polity. Staggered and marathon work hours arguably make the nation materially richer—economists debate the point—but they certainly deprive us of what the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as a “cultural asset of importance”: an “atmosphere of entire community repose.”

I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity, and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.

As for the children, they’re not off building forts; they’re padding their college applications with extracurricular activities or playing organized sports. A soccer game ought to impose an ethos of not working on a parent, and offer a chance to chat with neighbors and friends. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing more adults checking their email on the sidelines.

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Old Dudes On Skateboards

Photos courtesy of the author

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | October 2019 | 36 minutes (8,980 words)


“It’s a very fine line between presenting yourself as a true skater and hardcore and being destructive.” ─ Lance Mountain

JR, one of my oldest, dearest friends, died in December. He was 43. We grew up skating together, during that golden age when Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, and Steve Caballero rode for Powell Peralta’s famed Bones Brigade skate team. Back in the mid-1980s, the Bones Brigade were not only discovering what these wheeled slabs of wood could do, they were releasing weird movies on VHS like The Search for Animal Chin and Future Primitive, where they skated ramps, pools, and steep roads, and clowned around. For kids like me, who didn’t relate to baseball or basketball, those movies taught us how to dress, taught us how to talk, taught us the many tricks we could do if we were willing to constantly injure ourselves practicing. My friends and I wanted to be the Bones Brigade, but most of us turned out differently.

Even though one old-school motto was “skate and destroy,” the Bones Brigade seemed kinder and gentler than most. They didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. Other pros did. Duane Peters, Christian Hosoi, and Jeff Grosso got lost partying. But no drug could give Lance Mountain and Tony Hawk what skating could. Vegan Mike Vallely put an elephant on his board to remind people of animals’ suffering. Rodney Mullen, essentially the inventor of street skating, spent lots of time reading in the library. Constructive rather than destructive was their identity and their art form. In hindsight, I wish we’d followed their lead sooner.

My middle-aged friends and I decided to honor our shared origins by sprinkling some of JR’s ashes at the Wedge, our old Phoenix skate spot, at the end of this summer. All my life, summer has been my favorite season. I’ve never wanted summers to end, especially this one, this way.
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The Thriving eBay Cheeto Community

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The human brain searches for recognizable forms in everything from clouds to wood grain, and a fervent online culture has arisen around the uniquely shaped puffed, machine-made cheese wads known as Cheetos. Collecting Cheetos that resemble Michael Jackson or a lobster claw almost makes collecting celebrity hair seem normal, but social acceptance isn’t the issue here. Each Cheeto is one of a kind. Some consider unique ones art. As food and agriculture journalist Tove Danovich shows us in her new piece for The Outline, people charge big bucks for a Cheeto shaped like a penis and a Cheeto shaped like a lizard. In 2017, a Cheeto shaped like Harambe, the gorilla who was shot in the Cincinnati zoo, sold for $99,900 on eBay, though the transaction seems to have been canceled. As Danovich always does so skillfully and humorously, she dives into the cheddary depths of this collector community, dusting herself in orange powder so we can sit at a safe distance enjoying the show. So how did this collector culture start, and who are the people buying these things?

The story of how Cheetos made their way to eBay is a circuitous one but it traces back to Andy Huot, the man behind an Instagram account called @CheeseCurlsofInstagram Huot is a weight-lifting enthusiast who often watches what he eats but one day in 2013 he had a craving for something crunchy and savory. He bought a bag of Cheetos. That’s when everything started falling into place. First he saw a perfect number seven. Then there was a Loch Ness monster, a Sasquatch, a hammerhead shark, and a T-Rex. “Once you find one, you see them everywhere,” he said.

He wanted to share his discoveries with the world, and so he started an Instagram. Within a few months he was added to one of the app’s “ suggested users” list and started getting thousands of followers a day. At its peak, his account had roughly 44,000 followers. He started an Etsy account to sell prints of his Cheeto photos, and was featured in an Intel commercial in 2016, making about $5,000 from what amounts to a hobby. (He tried putting the group of evolving Cheetos on eBay, but they didn’t sell.)

In 2016, Frito-Lay saw the kind of engagement Cheetos could get on the internet and decided to launch a search for artifacts to add to a “Cheetos Museum.” Contestants posted photos of their Cheetos on social media and uploaded them to the museum’s website. There were weekly $10,000 prizes for a month and one $50,000 grand prize for the best Cheeto shape. With more than 100,000 posts it was “one of the brand’s most successful digital engagement programs of all time,” Ryan Matiyow, senior director of marketing at Frito-Lay, told Marketing Daily.

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McDonald’s Starts Serving McTech to Survive in the Modern Age

McDonald's arches under renovation. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

In a fascinating story about food and innovation for Bloomburg Businessweek, Thomas Buckley and Leslie Patton write about how McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has been implementing some revolutionary changes to the fast food chain’s business model. Easterbrook wants, they say, “to reclaim the company’s image as a beacon of innovation, a designation McDonald’s hasn’t enjoyed since roughly the Truman administration.” Despite pushback from some franchise owners, the multibillion dollar company is trying to pull customers back from places like Five Guys and Chipotle by adding Uber Eats, item customization, and hoping to remake stores into data harvesting systems. To show how these programs fit into the company’s history, the authors describe the technological innovations that allowed McDonald’s to expand from a single tiny California burger stand into a titanic brand that feeds 1% of the human population. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s, it’s interesting to read about the struggles of a seemingly ever-present global brand that, like Coke and Nestle, has shaped the health of our species, and diluted many countries’ regional identity to a form as dull and predictable as the pink slime that becomes a chicken nugget. Now the challenge is for McDonald’s to rebuild itself into what the authors call “the Amazon of excess sodium.”

Easterbrook’s strategy so far has been vindicated by the numbers. That tailwind is breathing new life into the business. Strong drives 40 miles from his home in Aurora, Ill., every morning to be at his desk by 6 a.m., where he and a handful of other masochistic early risers blast rousing tunes by Journey or Adele on a Bose sound system to get the day going. It’s a routine they began after moving into the new head office, a $250 million building replete with sofa pods in the red and yellow McDonald’s color scheme, an amphitheater, rooftop terraces, and thousands of antique and modern Happy Meal toys locked inside cased glass like priceless museum specimens. Easterbrook opened the office in June of last year in a bid to attract young, tech-forward talent.

In March, McDonald’s acquired artificial intelligence startup Dynamic Yield, headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, for $300 million—the company’s largest acquisition in 20 years. The burger chain had been testing the machine learning software on drive-thrus at four restaurants in Florida, where screens automatically updated with different items based on the time of day, restaurant traffic, weather, and trending purchases at comparable locations. That technology has been deployed at 8,000 McDonald’s and counting, with plans to be in almost all drive-thrus in the U.S. and Australia by the end of the year, Easterbrook says. The deal signaled an ambition to align the chain with the same predictive algorithms that power impulsive purchasing on or streaming preferences on Netflix. In April, McDonald’s acquired a minority stake in New Zealand-based mobile app vendor Plexure Group Ltd., which helps restaurants engage with diners on their phone with tailored offerings and loyalty programs. The effort falls into the consumer-goods industry’s wider trend toward micromarketing, which has proved effective in driving sales.

In early September, McDonald’s said it was buying Silicon Valley startup Apprente Inc., a developer of voice-recognition technology. The idea is to help speed up lines by eventually having a machine, instead of a person, on the other side of the intercom to relay orders to kitchen staff. The deal for Apprente is McDonald’s third such investment in a technology business in the past six months as the company shakes off a tamer takeover strategy that for decades had focused on buying and selling restaurants from or to operators. McDonald’s is pursuing this new business model even as the latest burger trends steal the buzz from its offerings. Beyond fashionable vegan patties, a new and daunting foe is the fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (a Miami-based chain owned by the same company that controls Burger King), which became a national obsession when it was introduced in the U.S. in August.

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