Today I am going to talk all about Fritos and answering the all important question, what is a Frito pie? This iconic chip has led to the development of the humble Frito pie. This is a culinary masterpiece that is considered low-brow by many. However, they are a big deal in both Texas and New Mexico. There is even some controversy between the two states on who was first in developing the Frito pie.
When digging into the background of Fritos, there is a difference between the invention of the company and the actual recipe itself. The Frito Company was born in 1932 during the Great Depression. Charles Elmer Doolin worked at the Highland Park Confectionary in San Antonio, TX. The company was owned by his family. They were always trying to add new products to their portfolio and decided they needed something salty to offset all of the sweets they had to offer. Charles started looking around and responded to an ad in the San Antonio Express.
The ad was placed by Gustavo Olguin who was the inventor of the original Frito recipe. His ad offered for sale the original recipe for fried corn chips, a modified potato ricer, and some retail accounts. Charles bought the business from Gustavo and began pumping out chips in his mother’s kitchen. Charles had his mom, dad, and brother helping out. These four people formed the first board of directors with their father, Charles Bernard Doolin serving as the first chairman of the board.
The Frito Corporation
These chips were sold under the name of the Frito Corporation. It was located in the garage, which they quickly outgrew. They bought the house next door and expanded their operations. The following year in 1933-1934, they opened plants in Dallas and Tulsa. By 1947 demand for these chips became so high, that they opened additional plants in Los Angeles and Denver. They also licensed franchises nationwide. One of their most famous franchisees was H.W. Lay and Company. They had exclusive franchise rights to sell Fritos in the southeastern United States.
This relationship with Lay really helped Fritos take off. It was mutually beneficial. Charles had exclusive rights to sell Lay’s potato chips in the Southwest United States.
As the company grew and expanded, they developed other products. You may have heard of Cheetos. They also developed additional Frito flavors and various dips.
Charles was obsessed with perfecting the Frito recipe. He even went as far as to work with Texas farmers to develop his own special hybrid corn variety. He felt this specific variety gave Fritos the perfect flavor.
What Is A Frito Pie
Now that we have gone through a brief history of Fritos, I’m going to turn my attention to Frito pies. We have to first discuss what is a Frito Pie. A Frito Pie is comfort food central. You get a small bag of Fritos, open the bag, add in chili, cheese and chopped onion. That’s it! Some people will get “fancy” and add pickled jalapeños or sour cream, among other toppings.
Frito Pies are known by various names. In the Midwest you’ll hear them referred to as walking tacos. You also might hear Texas straw hat, or the classic Frito Pie. You’ll find these all over Texas. Go to any high school football game and you’re in business. You’ll easily find many people willing to scoop some hormel chili into a bag of Fritos.
They are traditionally served in a paper boat with the bag of chips split down the middle and the chili poured right inside. How can you go wrong with that?
Who Invented The Frito Pie?
So how can there be any controversy? Like many food items we have tackled on this show, the exact origins have become myth and legend before our very eyes. Multiple groups of very passionate people claim to be the first to come up with this combination of flavors and toppings.
New Mexicans claim that they invented the Frito Pie in the 1960s at a Woolworth’s in Santa Fe by a woman named Teresa Hernandez. However, that theory doesn’t hold any water. Sorry New Mexico! The dates just don’t line up.
The Texas theory is that Charles Doolin’s mother, Daisy Doolin was the first person to come up with this iconic recipe. That theory lines up with the original invention of the Frito in the 1930s. It would make sense that as Fritos were being refined and produced in her own home, that Daisy would do some research into how this unique chip could be used in various recipes. It wouldn’t seem a giant leap to think that she put some chili on the chips and called it a Frito Pie.
Dates Continue to Not Support New Mexico
Even if Daisy Doolin didn’t develop the recipe, other dates still don’t support the New Mexico theory. The Frito-Lay company attributes the recipe to Nell Morris, who joined Frito-Lay in the 1950s and helped develop an official cookbook that capitalized on Frito-Lay products. A recipe for Frito Pie was included in that cookbook.
Charles Doolin and the Frito Corporation were also early investors in Disneyland. In 1955 a Casa de Fritos restaurant opened in Disneyland itself. Frito Pie was an item on that early menu.
All of those dates are well ahead of the 1960s date claimed by New Mexico.
Anthony Bourdain Ups The Controversy
Many people have eaten Frito pie all over Texas and New Mexico. There are those who will admit that Texas was first, however, New Mexico is the best.
Anthony Bourdain went to Santa Fe, New Mexico and ate a Frito pie. He was not kind to the dish. He said they feel disgusting, are indigenous to Texas and hazardous to one’s health. Bourdain might have gotten less backlash if he went out and slapped a kid on the sidewalk.
He continued to say that the Five & Dime General Store’s snack bar, which stands in the same corner as the original Woolworth’s lunch counter, uses canned hormel chili and a day-glow orange cheese-like substance. Ouch!
The store owners, employees and customers were quick to defend the Frito pie. Lorraine Chavez cooks the Chile con carne from scratch every morning, using ground beef, and powdered red Chile. It is then carefully ladled into a bag of Fritos and topped with real cheddar cheese.
If I’m being honest, that does sound much better than the gut busting rendition served at Texas fairs and ball games. Most will use hormel chili and likely embrace the cheapest cheese like product they can scrounge up.
Where We are Today
So the battle will rage on. Who’s Frito pie was first? Who’s Frito pie is better? You’ll have fierce opposition on either side of those questions. What I do know is that whether you are in Texas or New Mexico, you’re sure to find people willing to slice open a bag of Fritos, slap in some chili, onions, and cheese, and send you on your way.
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