Frito Pie's humble origins may be the secret to its growing appeal among the jet set
Frito Pie, as many a food writer has noted by now, is an all-American food, evidenced by its ability to be simultaneously downwardly and upwardly mobile. As it becomes cheaper and easier to make (forget the "recipe," and ditch the serving dish; like mother nature's other perfect creations, such as the banana, Frito Pie comes with its own package) it seems to have jumped the benefit gala tax bracket. The humble, homely dish has shown up on fine dining menus, appeared at premiere parties, and is planned as the main dish for at least one mayoral fundraiser next spring.
Texas billionaires have always reveled in a downhome palate, perhaps because the roughnecks aren't so far back in the family tree, or maybe it's a way of saying, "I may own the Hope Diamond, but I'm still 'just folks.'" So go to a barbeque and you'll get just that, but for anything requiring sequins and polished shoes you could generally expect surf 'n' turf or the like. Not so any longer. Frito Pie has become trashy chic while ladylike outfits replace booty-cut jeans and midriffs on the runways.
Frito Pie isn't made so much as assembled, especially if you buy shredded yellow cheese and canned chili (Wolf Brand is the one most often requested of whoever is making the store run, but God help you if you get the kind with beans. Beans are acceptable in the Midwest and New Mexico but in Texas, it's all meat, baby). Picky eaters tear open a single-serving size bag of regular ol' Fritos, gently toss a handful of cheese with the chips, and pour in a warm ladleful of chili. Chopped onions are optional. Serve with a plastic spoon and a napkin.
There has been a fair amount of wasted breath and typeface over the appellation "Pie," but just think Shepherd's Pie (sans nutritional value, and I highly discourage you from looking at the fat and sodium intake) and you've got the idea. It's important to use fresh chips and enough cheese because the great pleasure of the dish is the contrast between the chewy chili, the gooey, melting cheese, and the crisp, salty chips.
The Chinati Open House weekend in Marfa, a tiny town in West Texas, is the annual October event that brings together underfed, over-caffeinated, couch-crashing art students and private jet owners in celebration of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd's legacy. A favorite pastime for those who drive through Fort Davis from I-10 is counting the planes parked on the runway of the municipal airport on the outskirts of town. During this year's fête, Texas' new brilliant magazine (think Vanity Fair without Dominick Dunne, Christopher Hitchens, or, well, any of the writers) hosted a party at Austin gallerist d. Berman's Marfa outpost. A lot of the art (remember Faith Gay at Cactus Bra and Lauren Levy at the Southwest School of Art & Craft?) was stellar, but the star of the show was indisputably the Frito Pie, served in the bag but tarted up by Ranch 616 chef Keven Williamson. The addition of a squirt of ranch dressing was hailed as "brilliant," but traditionalists made ambivalent faces when they hit the pieces of mango and pineapple chutney. You can take the pie out of Woolworth's but don't take the Woolworth's out of the pie.
Woolworth's is important to Santa Fe fans because one Frito Pie creation myth says the dish was invented at the local dime store by an employee named Teresa Hernandez in the 1960s. But the Wall Street Journal in 2000 quoted former Frito Lay executive (and Santa Fe resident) John McCarty as saying he published a recipe in a company cookbook in the 1950s. "I probably published the first official version of it, as far as I know," he told the paper. Nonetheless, the Santa Fe Woolworth's, which faced the city's main plaza and provided respite from encroaching trendy restaurants until it closed in 1997, was famous for its Frito Pie and the delicacy is still made and eaten by vendors at the plaza's Indian Market.
McCarty's recollection boosts Frito-Lay's claim that Daisy Dean Doolin, mother of company founder Elmer Doolin, invented the dish in San Antonio in the 1930s after her son purchased the chip recipe, the manufacturing equipment (a converted potato ricer), and 19 retail accounts for $100. He later moved the company to Plano, but Original Fritos are still made with just corn, oil, and salt. Texans who've grown up eating Frito Pie at Little League games and (in the case of Laredo, anyway) in school cafeterias can feel secure in their claim to culinary fame: Frito Pie was Texas' gift to a nation struggling through the Great Depression and a World War.
First doesn't mean best, however, and a lot of folks insist that Santa Fe's version is better. McNay Museum Curator of Art After 1945 MaLin Wilson-Powell recently moved back to Santa Fe. There, she says, they use shredded beef in their Frito Pie - which is probably more like traditional trail food chili con carne - and they soak the onions in "two or three changes of water" to remove the smell. Most notable about her recollection, however, is that we were jawing about Frito Pie while sitting on a gorgeous, $350,000 red granite sculpture by Scott Burton, and Wilson-Powell's face lit up just as it had when we were discussing her favorite pop artists 20 minutes earlier. Frito Pie travels well.
It's easy to tell if someone has eaten Frito Pie. If they have, they will exclaim, "I love Frito Pie!" or something similar when the subject is raised. If not, they will make a baby-doesn't-like-cauliflower face when you describe it. Yet, Frito Pie has the ability to transcend gaps gender, economic, and aesthetic. As the "it" crowd scarfed their Ranch 616 edition, on the southern fringe of Marfa a huddle of campers warmed their hands and bellies with their own Frito Pie and talked of art and politics. •
By Elaine Wolff