Travel writing can be a tricky enterprise, balancing editorial independence with the free publicity inherent in shining a spotlight on any inn, exotic foreign locale, or arcane piece of Americana. Without judicious consideration, travel articles can veer away from telling readers what is truly useful or unique about a place and instead serve as little more than a publicity tool — a concern I always kept in mind during two summers as a researcher-writer for the Let’s Go guidebook series.

Mike Conklin of the Chicago Tribune seems not to have received the memo. In a Travel section story currently third on the Tribune Web site’s most emailed list, he relays the quirky tale of Tom Straub, a restaurant proprietor in Algona, Iowa who is the proud owner of the “World’s Largest Cheeto.” The problem? Read Conklin’s third paragraph to find out for yourself:

“The Cheeto, weighing in at a chunky six-tenth’s of an ounce, and slightly larger than a silver dollar, sits on a small, velvet pillow in a glass-enclosed box on a mantel across from the restaurant’s bar. An entire bag of the snack food, which typically contains 40 or so individual pieces, weighs 26 1/8 ounces.”

Thus, using Conklin’s example — with 40 Cheetos in an entire bag totaling 26.125 ounces — the average Cheeto weighs .653125 ounces, or more than the prized specimen (“discovered three years ago in a package purchased by Mike Evans, a Navy petty officer stationed in Hawaii” and promptly listed for sale on eBay) on display in Sister Sarah’s Restaurant in Algona.

“Hardly a week passes without a visitor coming to Sister Sarah’s to view the Cheeto, a trip requiring some effort,” the Tribune’s Conklin tells us.

Guinness World Records declined to comment to Conklin on the Cheeto, but Frito-Lay confirmed that “it’s a record as far as they’re concerned,” with Straub adding, “If somebody’s got a bigger one, I say bring it on.”

If Conklin’s data on the typical bag of Cheetos was correct, that shouldn’t be any harder than heading for the nearest vending machine.

Either way, Conklin has gotten his story and Straub has gotten his publicity. The only folks we’re concerned about are the waves of intrepid Chicagoans who will, no doubt, soon show up in Algona, Iowa, hunting for a seriously inflated cheese puff.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.