When Erin Smith, chef and owner of Houston’s Feges BBQ, makes queso, she does it the Texas way. She cuts a package of Velveeta cheese into half-inch cubes and adds them to a saucepan until — after the addition of peppers, spices, and tomatoes — the resulting mix is fully melted. By the time the queso is served alongside chips for dipping, it’s rich, yes, but also a bit spicy. Hints of chile pepper and tomatoes seep through the layers of cheese, thanks to a not-so-secret ingredient: a can of Rotel.
“I am a native Texan, and I lived in New York and San Francisco for a few years,” Smith says. “At the time, you couldn’t find Rotel in either of those cities. I would get care packages with shipments of Rotel because it was the only way to make a proper queso. I truly believe that you just can’t make a proper queso without Rotel.”
The original Rotel was and still is a simple mix of diced tomatoes and chopped fire-roasted green chile peppers, plus minimal amounts of cilantro, citric acid, salt, and the ever-ubiquitous “natural flavors.” The marriage of chiles and peppers is stirred at the canning site into tomatoes simmering in a bit of water, and it packs heat — the branding is quick to label the taste “zesty,” with a “distinctly regional flavor.” For Sade Onadiji, Rotel was one of the essential ingredients her mother adopted when she moved to Texas from Grenada. “I only use it for nachos and queso,” Onadiji says. “It’s part of my mom’s queso recipe, which I’m sure she had to pick up in Texas, because she’s an immigrant from a country where queso isn’t a thing.”
The story of Rotel, which is now available in different spice levels and chile types, dates back to 1943. It originated in Elsa, Texas from a vegetable canner named Carl Roettele. Evolving from chile con queso in 19th century Mexico, recipes for cheese dip with various veggies in the early 1900s called for an exhausting process of roasting, peeling, and chopping chiles, then sautéing them with tomato and onions and mixing them with grated cheese. By the 1920s, this type of chile con queso was a common menu item in Texas restaurants and home kitchens. However, according to food writer Robert F. Moss, the cooking process of pepper roasting and cheese grating was exhausting, leading Texans to wonder if there was a simpler alternative.
A Mexican horticulturist named Fabian Garcia is considered the father of the Mexican food industry in the United States, according to Paul Bosland, director of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute. In the early 20th century, Garcia invoked hybridization to create the “New Mexico No. 9,” a pepper that was a bit milder in heat, and was sized to allow for more cost-effective processing. This chile became the prototype for more commercial chile processors of both canned green chiles and dried red chiles. Merchandisers were able to scale up their production, which expanded the chile pepper’s reach and popularity across the south, including Texas.
Recognizing the penchant for tomatoes and chiles in Texas, as well as the frustration with preparing them, Roettele came up with a grand idea. “He saw how popular the combination of tomatoes and chiles were together, so one day, he just had this idea: Why not can those together?” says Rotel brand communications manager Dan Skinner. Skinner says while there are new flavors and versions of Rotel — like chipotle and chili fixin’s — the original recipe stands as a foundation. “Rotel,” a phonetic spelling of the inventor’s last name, took off.
Throughout the rest of the ’40s, Rotel became popular in the major Texas cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, finding a place in dishes like guacamole, stews, nachos, crockpot dishes, mac and cheese, and of course, queso. Numerous iterations of queso already existed throughout the south before the inception of Rotel — even inciting some friendly border wars between states — but Rotel quickly became an essential ingredient, and queso’s popularity as an essential dip for football games, family events, and other gatherings became omnipresent. Rotel began marketing itself as a queso ingredient in 1949 through a recipe for chile con queso that simply required adding the canned good to melted cheese and serving it with chips.
Similar to many other canned good companies of that time, like Van Camp’s, Dinty Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and Campbell Soup Company, after gaining hometown popularity, Rotel slowly began to spread to nearby states like Oklahoma and Arkansas in the ’40s and ’50s, inspiring a cult following of sorts in the South. Not having to dice peppers was appealing, and an inexpensive canned good that could add so much seasoning to household staples was appreciated. Between 1948 and 1958, the number of supermarkets in the United States doubled to more than 2,500 stores; though fresh ingredients were valued at the time, housewives gained a renewed appreciation for consumerism and convenience after World War II, sparking a devotion to canned goods that reached homes and neighborhood cooking competitions throughout the country, including the White House.
“In 1963, when Lady Bird Johnson was second lady, she gave Rotel its first big PR win when she listed some of her favorite Texas recipes,” Skinner says. “She had a chili recipe that she shared, and Ro-Tel was the secret ingredient.” Lady Bird’s Pedernales River Chili was served at the family ranch and the White House. Though many versions of that recipe simply called for canned tomatoes, purists have remained committed to the version that Lady Bird touted publicly, which includes the beloved ingredient in exchange for the listed whole tomatoes.
In 2005, Rotel and Velveeta, that other essential queso ingredient, became partners, allowing Rotel to reach the Northeast and Midwest. Over the last 10 years, Rotel has become nationally available at 95 percent of retail locations; it’s now available at about 82 percent of stores in the Northeast. In 2002, ConAgra Foods acquired the Rotel brand, and now, its reach is far beyond the Texas cities that first popularized the pantry item. According to financial news site 24/7 Wall St., “Original” Rotel was the fifth most sold canned canned good in the United States in 2018, with $69.1 million worth of cans sold. The “Mild” variety placed 24th, with an additional $36.4 million in sales in 2018.
According to Skinner, the flexibility of Rotel is what’s made the item so popular both in Texas and around the nation. “You can take a basic recipe you’ve done a million different ways, but then you add Rotel, and suddenly it becomes spicy mac and cheese,” he says. “I think that versatility appeals to chefs and home cooks.”
For Savannah Bock, who has roots in Georgia and South Carolina, Rotel was an essential ingredient at her home, even if she didn’t know it growing up. “My mom put it in so much: ropa vieja, stewed okra, and black beans whenever we’d have taco night,” Bock says. “I found out Rotel was that secret ingredient when I went to college and tasted it in this Velveeta queso mix — I realized that my mom had been using Rotel all along.”
But not everyone is fully committed to the can. Mexico native and Houston chef Felipe Riccio prefers making his queso — tomatoes and chiles included — from scratch. Still, he recognizes the value of pre-canned tomatoes for home cooks and chefs alike.
“Rotel is a comfort food,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a bad product, I just prefer to tweak it or use it as a base.”
In a world burdened with the ongoing effects of a global pandemic, comfort food is exactly what many home cooks are looking for. “It just has a really nice flavor that’s unique, and slightly spicy,” says Bock. “It’s really something that you have to bring to your dishes.”
For home cooks and chefs throughout the south, Rotel will likely make an experience on the football snacks table, in warm stews, and in old family recipes. Packing the harmonious blend of tomatoes and spice, Rotel — demonstrative of a beautiful marriage between convenience and flavor — will be a fall pantry essential for years to come.
Kayla Stewart is a freelance food and travel writer based in Harlem with roots in Houston, Texas.