Many folks are of the opinion that the iconic Frito pie was invented by the old Woolworths on the Santa Fe Plaza. The Woolworth’s diner counter certainly played a role in popularizing it here in New Mexico. Like most of our favorite local foods — from enchiladas to capirotada — this one also had a precedent elsewhere. While we’ve embraced it fully and enthusiastically as ours, it’s worth knowing the beloved dish’s back story. Read up, and then think about getting one to snack on while shopping at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
FRITO PIE ROOTS
The Frito Pie started out as a Texas concoction. Daisy Dean Doolin created it in her San Antonio kitchen in 1932. She made a savory pie, of sorts, out of her Texas chili, and the new-fangled corn chips her son Elmer was selling.
Elmer had purchased a recipe and a machine for making a special kind of corn chip from Gustavo Olguin, after seeing an ad in the local paper. The “machine” was a converted potato ricer. Lots of home cooks, me included, use a potato ricer to make fluffy mashers, by pushing a potato through a plate with small round holes. Mr. Olguin had modified the plate to have slits, so that a cornmeal dough could be pushed through, creating the distinctive chips that could go straight into hot oil for frying.
Mr. Olguin made enough money to return to Mexico. Elmer’s little company grew and, eventually, merged after his death into the giant Frito-Lay.
The dish that Mrs. Doolin created had an official name, at least for a while — Fritos Corn Chips Chili Pie. Thank goodness it became a little shorter over time. Here in neighboring New Mexico, we changed the spelling to that of our native chile, with an ‘E.’
Some folks elsewhere equate the Frito pie with nachos. Good heavens, no! The proportions of chile and cheese are directly reversed, among other things. Nachos, a confirmed finger food, are best with broader tortilla chips as the base. As I understand, Fritos are made out of classic cornmeal, as opposed to the nixtamalized corn masa used for tortilla chips, part of the difference in taste and texture. Also, nachos are usually made to be shared. A Frito Pie is the perfect proportion for a solo diner, though the ease in which it can be scaled up makes it great for feeding multitudes.
THE PERFECTLY PORTABLE PIE
The individual snack-size Fritos bag has become the standard size version of the dish. Simply slice open a long side of each bag, and layer in hot chile, and then add cheese and chopped onion. Served with a plastic spoon or spork and lots of napkins, it’s my idea of the perfect food to eat while standing on a downtown street corner or sitting cross-legged on the grassy plaza.
One of the characteristics I like most about the Frito pie is the satisfying crunch in every bite. There’s something about the thickness and curlicue-ness of the Frito that both holds and holds up to the chile. Some folks believe in lettuce as a topper for the pie. The cool crunch of iceberg is a nice contrast, at least until it succumbs to the warmth of the chile spread beneath it.
These days, Frito-Lay has many flavors of Fritos. I might try the “Lightly Salted” if I came across them but think “Flaming Hot” and some of the others would get lost under the intensity of New Mexican chile.
You can add pinto beans, canned chili beans, or sauteed ground beef to the chile. Some folks think of adding guac or sour cream, but I think they’re distracting additions. Skip the onion, if you wish, add some red-ripe tomato, or substitute green chile for red. Embellishments can be good, but just don’t lose sight of the elemental basics, of chili or chile, and those Fritos.
Frito Pie, Pie Style
When you want an actual casserole-style Frito Pie, here’s a simple recipe.
Makes 4 servings
3 cups Fritos corn chips
2½ cups favorite red chile
4 ounces shredded mild Cheddar, Monterey jack, or a combination
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped (optional)
A couple of handfuls of shredded iceberg lettuce (very optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread 2 cups of the Fritos in a medium baking dish. Top the corn chips with half of the onion and cheese. Pour the chile over the onion and cheese. Top with the remaining Fritos, onion, and cheese.
Bake right away for about 15 minutes, or until the pie is heated through and the cheese bubbles. Scatter with tomato or lettuce, or both, if you wish. Serve the pie immediately.
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.