What Is Frito Pie Actually?

It should surprise nobody that the late food giant Anthony Bourdain once made comments about a regional dish that stirred up some controversy. The year was 2013, and Bourdain, accompanied by his infamous potty mouth, visited the Five and Dime General Store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for "Parts Unknown," his show that aired on CNN. Though subsequent statements from Bourdain and his spokesperson made it clear that he enjoyed the Frito pie from the snack bar, the initial broadcast showed him holding the dish and saying that "it feels like you're holding a warm crap in a bag," and also referring to it as "colostomy pie," according to the Dallas Observer.

And then Bourdain went on to commit the cardinal sin of raising the issue of the origins of Frito pie, a dish to which both Texans and New Mexicans both lay claim. While Bourdain suggested that New Mexico "let Texas have this one," the Dallas Observer firmly asserted "Texas' divine right as the birthplace of the Frito pie," urging Texans to embrace the very dish Bourdain disparaged. What exactly is this controversial meal? Both the origin and composition of Frito pie are a little more complicated than you might expect.

Frito pie was born in Texas

While folks may disagree on the exact composition of Frito pie — yes, there are important variations — the dish is all based on the delectable corn chip perfected in San Antonio, Texas, in 1932 by Charles Elmer Doolin. Doolin paid the princely sum of $100 to Gustavo Olguin for his recipe for fried corn chips (along with production supplies and retail accounts), then refined the process of making what we now recognize as Fritos, which still contain only three ingredients: corn, corn oil, and salt.

Frito pie lore is rich and a challenge to sort through. In 1935, the Frito Company began offering homemakers in Texas $1 for every recipe they sent in featuring the corn chip, and it was in 1962 that the recipe for Frito pie appeared on the back of the brand's bags. The dish existed well before then though. While some sources credit Doolin's mother, Daisy Dean, with creating the dish, others say the recipe was invented by his wife Katherine or the snack company's consumer service department. 

The corporate records do indeed demonstrate "Fritos chili pie" was served by its publicity department at a public function in 1949 — a date that precedes New Mexico's claim that Frito pie was created in the Land of Enchantment at the Santa Fe Woolworth's in the 1960s.  This means the Lone Star State is the official birthplace of the beloved dish.

How do you make Frito pie?

One version of Frito pie is what Bourdain sampled and so vividly described. It's a bag of Fritos opened up, topped with chili and often with onions and cheese — sometimes called a walking taco. This rendition  is served pretty much wherever Texans gather — at Friday night football games, church suppers, and county fairs. When you're at an event, the humble dish, made either with canned or homemade chili, comes served in an individual-sized bag of Fritos.

In fact, this version is the one that appeared on millions of bags of Fritos in 1962. The recipe, according to Houstonia Magazine, read: "Heat can of chili, pour into bag of Fritos, and sprinkle with grated cheese, and chopped onions." Interestingly, there are even earlier records of Frito pie than the one in the company's documents, which point to its other style — one somewhat elevated compared to clutching a bag of chips at a tailgate party.

Frito pie is more than just a bag of chips

A brief line in the May 23, 1946, issue of The Electra News, a weekly local newspaper published in the eponymous Texas town, appears to be the very first time that Frito pie is mentioned in print. At a meeting of the Electra Home Demonstration Committee, following Mrs. Flora Stockton's thorough demonstration of how to process and can a chicken, "Mrs. E. R. Graham gave a tasty recipe for Frito pie." However, The Electra News doesn't record Graham's recipe. The earliest known printed recipe for Frito pie is one featuring the corn chip in a layered casserole — credited to Lillian Townsend in an Oklahoma newspaper from 1948. 

Frito pie in casserole form calls for chili con carne, Fritos, onions, jalapeños, and cheese, all layered and baked until the cheese is melted. The version of Frito pie is ripe for customization. For example, Meyer's Elgin Sausage's Fancy-Pants Frito Pie, an ode to from-scratch Tex-Mex, calls fresh corn, shredded roasted chicken, and plenty of spices. There's also Josef Centeno's Frito Pie with Smoked Salmorejo, which features a powder made from three different kinds of chiles.

Frito pie is the sort of homey recipe that invites variations from family to family. One cook may include a layer of sliced tamales. Another may use house-pickled jalapeños for a vinegary kick. The dish is a classic — with adaptations both casual and refined — and it's perhaps the most enduring legacy of the humble Frito.