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A Brief History of the Frito Pie

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Everything you need to know about the lowbrow culinary delight

Frito pie is often served right inside the chip bag
Frito pie is often served right inside the chip bag
Alfonso Cevola/Flickr

Author and world traveler Anthony Bourdain created quite a stir when he made some disparaging remarks about the simple culinary wonder known as Frito pie. In a 2013 episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown, Bourdain not only referred to Frito pie as feeling like "warm crap in a bag," he also introduced the beloved foodstuff as originating from Texas —  something that’s heartily contested by New Mexicans, who also lay claim to the dish.

While this junk food-based comestible may invite skepticism or disdain from those unfamiliar with it, it’s a lowbrow culinary delight held in high regard by people from both states — and beyond. Here, now, is everything you need to know about Frito pie:

What is Frito Pie?

Despite its name, Frito pie is not pie at all but rather a pile of Fritos with chili on top. The humblest version of the dish is served from the chip bag itself: The bag is typically placed in a paper boat and split down the middle, and the chili is poured right inside.

Frito pie may vaguely resemble nachos, but due to its messy nature, it is always eaten with a (usually plastic) fork. (A Dallas Morning News restaurant reviewer raised eyebrows back in 2011 when they committed the faux pas of denouncing a restaurant’s Frito pie for being too difficult to manage as a finger food.)

What exactly is Frito pie composed of?

At its most basic, Frito pie is simply Fritos with chili ladled on top; in Texas, it is typically garnished with shredded cheddar cheese and chopped raw onion. Other accoutrement, while entirely optional, could include chile con queso in place of the shredded cheese, pickled jalapeno slices, and/or a dollop of sour cream, though purists would surely frown on this.

When and where did Frito Pie originate?

As is the case with many iconic dishes, the exact where and when of the Frito pie’s invention is heavily disputed. As Houston-based food writer, author, and Texas culinary expert Robb Walsh explains, New Mexicans claim it was invented in the 1960s at a Woolworth’s in Santa Fe by a woman named Teresa Hernandez. Meanwhile, Texans trace it back to the 1930s, claiming San Antonio resident Daisy Doolin — the mother of Charles Elmer Doolin, the guy who invented Fritos — dreamed up the dish; Hernandez’s version was plain, while Doolin’s came adorned with cheese and chopped onions.

But regardless of its true origins, Walsh argues that Texas helped the dish achieve notoriety: "Frito pie owes its popularity to Texas high school stadium concession stands where it’s made by tearing open the bag of chips and ladling in all of the options in the condiment holder," he tells Eater. "After the chili dog, it is the second most delicious thing you can possibly assemble from chopped onions, shredded cheese, and chili."

Frito pie is also found across the Midwest, where it's usually referred to as a "walking taco."

Frito Pie

The world's largest Frito pie was constructed at the 2012 State Fair of Texas [Photo: AP]

Where can I eat Frito pie?

Frito pie is a staple menu item at Little League and high school sports concessions stands all over Texas, but it's also found its way onto plenty of restaurant menus; it's not an uncommon sight at barbecue restaurants, where it might be topped with brisket chili or other smoked meats. In recent years, a trend has emerged of "cheffed-up" versions of Frito pie: In Dallas, chef Stephan Pyles’ Stampede 66 serves a "Freeto Pie" with housemade corn chips and cheddar foam. Some chains have also adopted variations on the dish: Drive-in chain Sonic served a Fritos chili cheese wrap at one time, and Taco Bell has a Beefy Fritos Burrito.

More adventurous variations on the Frito pie formula can be found in Mexico, where street vendors hawk Tostilocos and Dorilocos — bags of chips topped with various ingredients from hot sauce and jicama to gummi bears and candy-coated peanuts.

How do I make Frito Pie at home?

Depending on your cooking skills, personal motivation, and level of self-loathing, it can be as easy as walking into a convenience store, opening a bag of Fritos, and pumping some commercial-grade chili on top. For best results, however, you’d be wise to make the chili from scratch. Southern food expert John T. Edge proffers an excellent Frito pie recipe in his 2012 book The Truck Food Cookbook.

Of course, really any chili you prefer can be slathered on a bed of Fritos; just make sure it doesn't have beans in it, or a band of angry Texans may come for you with pitchforks.

Watch Anthony Bourdain's Frito pie experience and witness the comments that made him many New Mexican enemies, below:

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