Lay Off!

The Complicated History of the Frito Pie

New Mexicans think it was invented in Santa Fe; Texans, in San Antonio. When Anthony Bourdain calls it “warm crap in a bag,” who should be insulted?

By Robb Walsh December 31, 2013 Published in the January 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Photo by camknows

New Mexicans like to claim that the Frito pie was invented at the Five & Dime General Store in Santa Fe, where ordering the local delicacy at the eatery’s wooden counter is a tourist ritual—one that food celebrity Anthony Bourdain recently tried for himself. Perhaps embarrassed that a Frito pie was the best that the producers could come up with for his CNN show Parts Unknown—which after all promises “incredible adventures to extraordinary locations”—Bourdain got graphic.

He called New Mexico’s version of Frito pie “warm crap in a bag” and “colostomy pie.” 

“New Mexico, you have many wonderful things,” continued the provocateur/gasbag. “I think, let Texas have this one.” How does a guy who remained polite to his Namibian hosts while eating warthog anus think it’s okay to insult Texans and New Mexicans?

Bourdain’s ontological and scatological slights came as a shock to Frito pie lovers everywhere but were a double insult to New Mexicans, who found themselves in the odd position of having to defend their dish on two fronts. In short order, the ancient controversy over the Frito pie’s birthplace was reignited. 

New Mexicans say Teresa Hernandez invented it in the 1960s at the Santa Fe Woolworth’s (now the Five & Dime), ladling her mother’s homemade red chili into opened corn chip bags, adding no garnishes or additions. Texans, meanwhile, claim that the dish, complete with onions and cheese, was invented in San Antonio by Daisy Dean Doolin, the mother of Fritos inventor Charles Elmer Doolin, in the 1930s. 

Actually, both origin stories are myths according to the 2011 book Fritos Pie, Stories, Recipes and More, by Kaleta Doolin, Charles’s daughter. Among the more startling claims she makes is that her father, who’s often called the Thomas Edison of snack foods, didn’t really invent Fritos. Rather, he bought the recipe and a small corn chip company from a Mexican named Gustavo Olguin who was trying to raise money to return home. (Oddly, nobody ever calls Olguin the Simón Bolivar of botanas.) 

Drawing on unprecedented access to Frito-Lay company records, the book dismisses the Santa Fe Woolworth’s claim outright. Documents confirm that the company’s publicity department served “Fritos chili pie,” as the corporation called it, to the Dallas Dietetic Association in 1949, more than a decade before Hernandez concocted her own dish. 

The author credits her grandmother Daisy Dean with the company’s landmark 1937 “Cooking with Fritos” campaign, which first championed the corn chip’s culinary versatility and included a recipe for Fritos fruitcake. But the pie itself was not her doing, according to a ’60s newspaper article quoted in Fritos Pie: “While recipes are created for Frito-Lay’s entire line of snack products and canned foods,” the story reads, “perhaps the most famous recipe developed by the Consumer Service department is that for Fritos Chili Pie.” 

So it seems that the Frito pie as we know it is actually the creation of a corporate test kitchen and not any one individual, one dish among many in a ’50s Frito-Lay recipe booklet that included Frito-kets (salmon croquettes made with Fritos) and Fritos meatloaf. The breakout moment for Frito pie came in 1962, when the recipe appeared on millions of bags of chips: “Heat can of chili, pour into bag of Fritos, and sprinkle with grated cheese, and chopped onions.” That formula has been followed by high school football stadium concession stands ever since, as well as Texas school lunch programs, not to mention Frito pie aficionados, although most of us make our own chili.

So while we categorically dispute Bourdain’s “warm crap in a bag” putdown, neither Texans nor New Mexicans have much reason to take the insult too personally.

Show Comments