Texas Living

Why Does Frito Pie Exist?

By Peter Simek 7.16.18

Before publication of the 2011 book Fritos Pie: Stories, Recipes, and More, by Kaleta Doolin, the origin of Frito pie was a hotly contested mystery.

Aficionados of the Frito pie that was served up at the Santa Fe Woolworth’s by Teresa Hernandez in the 1960s claim the dish was invented there. But Texans trace their Frito pie origin story further back to San Antonio in the 1930s, where the mother of Fritos inventor Charles Elmer Doolin was said to have served her son the classic combo of corn chips, chili, onions, and cheese.

But while researching her book, Doolin dug into the corporate records at Frito-Lay and found that in 1937, the company published a cookbook with the first known recipe for Frito pie. It turns out the dish was invented by the marketing department as a clever way to sell more chips. But we’re glad they did.

A Texas Classic

Regardless of who can claim credit for inventing the dish, it’s become as quintessentially Texan as kolaches, sheet cake, or any of these songs.

The Frito pie served up across Texas today still follows roughly the same recipe outlined in the 1937 “Cooking With Fritos” campaign: Heat a can of chili, pour it into a bag of chips, and sprinkle grated cheese and chopped onions on top.

Madness or Masterpiece?

For a dish that’s so unabashedly simple, it has been remade a million ways over the years. Do you add jalapeños or sour cream? Is it blasphemy to innovate with duck chili and goat cheese, as one chef served it? The cafeteria staple has been repurposed for high-end restaurants, but in its purest form, Frito pie is probably best enjoyed at a high school football game.

Why It’s So Good

At its heart, Frito pie remains a simple combo of chips and chili. And that’s the secret, according to Texas Monthly. “Fritos are salty and absorbent,” reads an analysis published in 1986. “If you want to get technical, Fritos absorb grease, and good chili has a lot of grease. Furthermore, the Frito retains its crispness even when chock-full of grease.”

How to Make Your Own

You can’t really mess up making a good Frito pie, and the perfect recipe all comes down to personal preference. For a classic dish, slice open a bag of Fritos horizontally and ladle a can of hot Texas chili right into the bag. Top with onions and cheese.

Store-bought cans of chili are perfectly acceptable — after all, one of the charms of Frito pie is that it’s so easy to make. But if you want to make the dish with your own cook-off-winning chili recipe, then you’ll improve on a classic.

Just remember, diehard Texas chili experts say that a true pot of Texas chili contains onions, garlic, pepper, tomatoes, and ground beef. Beans are not invited to the party.

Interested in more Texas history? Follow the historic Texas Forts Trail or spook yourself out with these infamous Texas ghost stories.

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