Cheese Puffs Had A Secret First Life As Cow Feed

The next time you're about to dig into a bowl of cheese puffs — also known as America's favorite cheesy snack — pause to appreciate the origins of the savory, crispy snack as cow feed. That's because, like butter or oyster sauce, cheese puffs are the byproduct of pure chance.

Cows need to eat, and on an industrial level, mass amounts of cow feed are needed. One of the first feed companies, the Flakall Corporation, received a patent for its innovative feed grinder machine in 1935. Three years later, it received another protecting its unique manufacturing process. Soon after, the machine meant to grind cow feed accidentally created the world's first puffed corn snack. Machinist Edward Wilson was fixing a grinder when he noticed puffed ends of the feed, called collettes, which were the result of using wet corn to clean the machine. Wilson took the ends home to his wife. The couple ended up snacking on what was still technically animal feed, with a few flavorings added.

Others soon caught on to the corn puff idea. Soon, the Flakall Corporation decided to pivot its focus and even ran a contest to name the newfangled treat. The winner: Korn Kurls. The name came from a woman who was inspired by the shape of the snack, which made her think of curled hair. Soon after, Wilson went on military duty and left his shares of the Flakall business to a man named Melbourne Reed. Wilson's wife sold her shares to Harry Adams.

One person took Korn Kurls to cheese puff modernity

The concept of a Korn Kurl proved to be so popular that Reed and his wife also had fun in the kitchen experimenting with the puffy product, testing different recipes and adding different flavors to the snack. Their homemade attempts resembled modern Cheetos or baked corn puffs. The pair then took their creations to a local tavern for taste testing.

The results of this focus group testing were clear, with many lauding the Reeds' method of deep frying the corn snacks and coating the result in cheese. By 1941, under Reed's Food Products, the Reeds began to distribute Korn Kurls in multiple states. World War II interrupted cheese puff production, but Harry Adams (who owned the most shares of the company) and his sons made Korn Kurls again after the war. Beatrice Foods then bought the company and two related operations by 1961. Over the years, other owners came into play, finally resulting in Frito-Lay which was acquired by PepsiCo in 1965. 

The rest, as they say, is history, although there are alternative cheesy puffed corn snack origin stories. Some credit Morrie Yohai with the creation of the Cheez Doodle, while the Cheeto was pioneered by Charles Elmer Doolin, who founded Frito. So there you have it: the next time you crunch into a Cheetos, Cheez Doodle, or another corn puff-based treat, you can also appreciate the snack's history of innovation, ingenuity, and chance all in one cheesy bite.