The Frito Pie Cult

Last week I read Linda Ellerbee’s latest memoir, Take Big Bites. I loved this book and found much to think about, starting with the story she relates in the first chapter about Frito Pie.

I sat up and saluted that story. The chile-onion-garlicy aroma of Frito Pie still hung in the air and the taste lingered on my lips as I read. I’ve been making Frito Pie for twenty years, though I had no idea what it was. I got the recipe from my grandmother, who lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the title on it was Chile Chip Casserole. Her eccentric concoctions were legendary. I assumed this was another one of them, though it seemed less bizarre than usual for her, and she seldom wrote recipes down. I assumed she had made it up, because when I was growing up in New Mexico, Mexican food was a staple in our family’s diet. Although we generally stuck to the traditional New Mexico red chile and cheese stacked enchiladas or rolled tacos, we did innovate in later years.

Perhaps I’ve innovated the most. Though this recipe was an instant hit from the first time I made it, I probably never did follow it to the letter. I use whatever tortilla chips I have on hand, because I can’t even remember the last time I purchased Fritos, a mainstay of my childhood diet.

One mention of Frito Pie could pass from memory in a flash. But a couple of days later I say it again, probably in a blog, and again somewhere else the day after. Today in a blog update post from RssFwd (new owner of Blogarithm), I saw a link to redRavine and Ybonesy’s story, The Cult of Frito Pie.

In this storm of stories about Frito Pie that has hit with such strength and focus, it has grown obvious that Frito Pie is indeed a cult; one I didn’t realize I belonged to. Part of the cult ritual is posting your own Frito Pie recipe, or in my case, Chile Chip Pie. Though I’ve never included a recipe in this blog, there’s a first time for everything, and recipe-story combinations make delicious reading. You see my well-worn copy of her recipe below. I scanned it rather than typing because there is something special about saving it in her handwriting.

I have no idea how that page got so yellowed and stained. It isn’t like I pull it out to cook from! In fact, I generally make this from left-over chile by stirring in “enough” onion, cheese and tortilla chips, and who needs a recipe for that? But that's exactly what she urges in her closing comment: “You can vary this to use what you have on hand —”

Here is my “from scratch” version as I make it for company:

Enchilada Casserole

One pound ground beef
One large chopped onion
Two or three cloves garlic, minced and smashed
1 tsp. cumin
Chile powder to taste (amount varies on personal preference and type of chile)
1 Tbsp. all purpose flour
8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 cups drained, cooked pinto beans (home-cooked are best)
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (longhorn is traditional, mild or medium cheddar, colby or Monterey jack also work)
1 cup sliced black olives
2 cups crushed tortilla chips (plain or flavored)
Shredded lettuce (optional)
Chopped fresh tomato (optional)

Brown beef, half the onion, and garlic in large skillet over medium heat. Add cumin, chile powder and flour. Cook and stir to mix flour and chile well. Add tomato sauce and stir as it thickens. Add water as necessary to make medium sauce (not runny).

Transfer mixture to large mixing bowl. Stir in beans, remaining onion, olives, and cheese. Add crushed tortilla chips. Place in two-quart casserole. Bake at 350° F for about 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Optional: top with shredded lettuce and fresh tomato to serve.

If I had a reliable local source of tasty canned enchilada sauce, I’d use that instead of the seasonings and tomato sauce. Unfortunately I live in one of the last places in America to lack a full offering of Mexican food ingredients.

Oh, my, I have some beans in the refrigerator, hamburger in the freezer ... I'm hungry!

Write now: about a cult recipe or traditional family favorite you’ve enjoyed through the years. Include your version of the recipe, the history of it, and how you came to start making it.


Stephanie said...

I always thought Frito Pie was what one bought at the variety store (or 5 & 10) on the plaza in Santa Fe. They open an individual-size bag of Fritos and pour the chili and cheese (and I think onions) on the Fritos right in the bag. Yum! And they call it Frito Pie.

Ritergal said...

Your version is what I've heard described as the classic version, and more like the one Linda Ellerbee describes. My grandmother's recipe may have been based on that one, with a little more finesse. Knowing her, she may have made the whole thing up from some vague memory of the one you had. She spent a lot of time in Santa Fe.

The Wikipedia article that covers Frito Pie has two different legends. One goes back to the early 1930, and the other is the Santa Fe Woolworth's version in the 1960s. If it didn't come to Santa Fe until the 60s, it's no wonder I missed it. I was in Boston and then Washington State by then!

Kaisa Kyläkoski said...

You might want to listen an NPR story from last year at . As far as I remember it tells that the Frito developer's wife tried out all sort of weird recipes based on Fritos.

ybonesy said...

It *is* a cult. Glad to know you are a member, too. I'll try your recipe next time we need a fix.

Oh,surely there must be some place that ships red chile and green over dry ice. Have you tried contacting Bueno Foods in ABQ? You might give them a try.

ybonesy said...

p.s., to Stephanie, your memory and mine are the same. And, yes, onions, and everything else, righ in the bag. Yum.

Linda Austin said...

My friend from Texas introduced her version of Frito Pie to us - homemade chili poured into your bowl of Fritos - which I loved since I loved Fritos. However, growing up with my Japanese mother, the rare times we had chili it was served on top of rice, my preferred way of eating chili to this day.

Ritergal said...

What a Frito buzz! This is such wonderful comfort food, warming both mouth and spirit.

Linda, rice and chile are wonderful together. Many Mexican recipes rely on rice.

Tara said...

That sounds sooooo good right now!

Ritergal said...

Canned beans work in a pinch. With canned beans and canned enchilada sauce, it would go together in ten minutes.