Ode to the Frito Pie

- March 21, 2012

"...the Frito pie has been hailed across the country as a true icon of American food"

An Ode to the Frito Pie

This simple dish, made with chile, cheese and corn chips and served in a Frito's bag, has a controversial history. Also known as the "walking taco," "jailhouse tacos," "tacos in a bag," "pepperbellies," "Petro's" and "Frito boat," the beloved Frito pie has two competing stories of origin.

According to one version—the one most Texans believe—the Frito pie was created by Daisy Doolin, the mother of the founder of Frito-Lay, Elmer Doonin, shortly after he and his brother invented the corn chips. She is said to have created recipes featuring corn chips to help market the chips. Those recipes included Frito's Fruit Cake, made with candied fruits, pecans and crumbled Fritos, and Fritoque Pie, a chicken casserole made with crushed Fritos.

But a second story, which most culinary historians adhere to, attributes the invention of the Frito pie to Teresa Hernandez, who worked at the lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworth's on the Santa Fe Plaza in the 1960s.

Whichever you believe, the Frito pie has been hailed across the country as a true icon of American food. It's a "soupy, creamy street food that's recently entered the realm of haute cuisine," according to Smithsonian Magazine. "The Frito retains its crispness even when chock-full of grease," a writer for Texas Monthly reported. "Try chili on top of potato chips, if you don't believe me. In fact, try chili with Doritos or Tostitos or any of the other dry corn chips. It won't do. The Frito has integrity."

"Almost crazily simple, yet capable of inducing a lifetime worth of cravings, it's the perfect example of how the delicious whole can be greater than the sum of its greasy parts," said a writer for msnbc.com.

Fritos, the key ingredient to the pie, date to 1932, when Charles Elmer Doolin bought a package of corn chips for a nickel at a small café in San Antonio. He liked the taste so much that he tracked down the Mexican chef who invented them and paid him $100 for the recipe and the equipment needed to make them. Fritos, which means "fries" in Spanish, went on to become one of the best-known brands in the country.

The daughter of Frito's founder, Kaleta Doolin, has just written a book about the story of the company, with personal anecdotes, stories and vintage and contemporary recipes. "Fritos Pie: Stories, Recipes and More" includes recipes for Fritos Fruit Salad Mold, Fritos Texas Loaf, Fritos Thanksgiving Chicken and Fritos Macaroons,

The Frito pies many believe were invented at the F.W. Woolworth's store in the 1960s are still served at the same lunch counter today, though now it's called the Five and Dime Store. Topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and beans, the Frito pies here provided my first taste of the regional food. Greasy, spicy, salty and loaded with flavor, I'm a big fan. And though I don't eat them on a regular basis, I make sure that when out of town guests come to visit, they get a bite of what may be the most famous food invented in Santa Fe…..or maybe not.

The Closing of the Supper Club
Sad news to report this week from a Santa Fe dining outpost: The Real Food Nation has closed the doors of its Supper Club, less than one year after the upscale eatery opened out on Old Las Vegas Highway.

A few months back, I wrote about the excellent New Year's Eve dinner my husband and I enjoyed there, cooked by chef Kim Muller, who recently left the restaurant. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, the food impeccable and the service perfect. News of Kim's departure was unfortunate, and now, just a short time later, the place is history.

Blyth Timken, who owns Real Food Nation with her husband, Andrew MacLauchlan, said that the Supper Club just didn't have enough business. "We didn't have enough fine diners," she said, adding that the ailing economy played a role in the restaurant's demise.

Luckily, the Real Food Nation Café remains open, and recently expanded its hours for the coming spring and summer seasons. That's good news, because the café's egg and bacon biscuit sandwiches are one of my favorite breakfast foods.