Frito pie, a dish made by combining Fritos corn chips, chili, and cheese in a bowl or bag, has become a popular snack across the United States. But exactly where and when the savory combination was created is a matter of debate. There are several competing claims about the origins of Frito pie, with stories tracing it back to the 1920s and locations ranging from Texas to New Mexico.
The Texas claims
One of the earliest claims for inventing Frito pie comes from Daisy Dean Doolin, the founder of the Fritos corn chip brand. According to company legend, Doolin created the dish in 1932 in her own kitchen in San Antonio, Texas.
The story goes that Doolin was looking for ways to use up leftover chili and decided to combine it with Fritos corn chips. She served the quick and easy dish at parties, leading to it being nicknamed “Frito pie.”
There is little documentation to verify Daisy Doolin’s role in creating the dish. But the idea that Frito pie originated in San Antonio has been widely repeated. In fact, a 1967 recipe book published by Fritos formally credited Doolin as the inventor.
Terlingua, Texas claim
Another Texas town, Terlingua, also claims to be the birthplace of Frito pie. According to this account, the dish was invented by Terlingua resident Rebecca Webb Carranza in the 1940s.
Terlingua was a mining town near the Mexico border. Carranza worked at a restaurant called The Chili Queens, which was frequented by miners. She reportedly came up with the idea of serving Fritos with chili as an inexpensive meal for the miners.
Again, there is limited documentation to verify this story. But Terlingua leanes heavily into its role in Frito pie history, holding an annual Terlingua International Chili Championship cook-off.
New Mexico origins
While Texas boasts the earliest stories of Frito pie’s creation, New Mexico also has a strong claim as the real home of Frito pie. The dish as it is known today seems to have first become popular on a mass scale in Santa Fe in the 1960s.
Woolworth’s lunch counter
According to many New Mexico sources, Frito pie was first served in the early 1960s at the Woolworth’s department store in Santa Fe. The story credits Teresa Hernandez, who worked the lunch counter at the five-and-dime store, as the inventor.
As the story goes, a sales representative from Fritos came in one day and mentioned the idea of putting chili in a bag of Fritos. Hernandez decided to give it a try, layering Fritos, chili, and cheese into a bag to create a portable meal.
When another customer asked what was in the bag, Hernandez reportedly replied “Frito pie,” cementing the name. The dish proved so popular that Hernandez made it a regular menu item. Visitors to Santa Fe, including many tourists, tasted Frito pie at Woolworth’s and began spreading the idea.
Spread through Santa Fe
In the early 1960s, Frito pie quickly caught on across Santa Fe’s restaurants and school cafeterias. The practice of opening up small bags of Fritos and adding chili and toppings became ubiquitous.
For example, the recipe was adopted by Cafeteria Santa Fe, a local school district dining hall. Serving chili and cheese over Fritos provided an inexpensive meal that kids loved.
Soon, Frito pie had become established as a Santa Fe specialty. Residents proudly lay claim to popularizing, if not outright inventing, Frito pie.
Frito pie goes national
While Frito pie originated in Texas and New Mexico, it went on to become popular across the United States in the 1960s and 70s. This national growth can be largely attributed to the spread of Fritos as a mass-market snack.
The Frito Company was purchased by H.W. Lay & Company in 1961. Under their joint Frito-Lay brand, Fritos distribution expanded nationwide. At the same time, sales of bagged corn chips were booming.
As Fritos became widely available, the idea of using them to make Frito pie spread as well. Recipes for the dish began appearing in national cookbooks and food magazines in the 1970s.
Frito-Lay also played a role in popularizing Frito pie. While the company did not invent the dish, it did incorporate it into national advertising campaigns. This helped raise awareness of Frito pie and cement it as a creative way to use Fritos.
Regional variations emerge
As Frito pie spread across the U.S., regional variations on the basic recipe emerged. These different styles reflected local tastes and chili traditions.
|Frito pie style
|Texas-style chili without beans, often with cheddar cheese
|New Mexico red chili or green chili, with beans
|Ground beef chili, onions, cheddar cheese
|Turkey or vegetarian chili, avocado, Jack cheese
Despite these variations, the basic assembly of Fritos, chili, and cheese remained at the core of the beloved snack.
Frito pie today
From its origins in the Southwest, Frito pie has become a well-known dish across the United States. It is still most popular in its original Texas and New Mexico hometowns. But the convenience food can now be found everywhere from ballparks to movie theaters.
While restaurants serve fancier versions, Frito pie is still best known as the humble snack invented decades ago. The classic assembly of mass-produced corn chips, ground beef chili, and cheese continues to hold widespread appeal.
Some food purists argue that since it does not involve a pie crust, Frito pie should not include the word “pie.” But the whimsical name is now deeply rooted in its history.
Arguments over whether it qualifies as cooking or is just lazy also miss the point. Frito pie’s appeal lies in its sheer simplicity and nostalgic connections to Americana.
As an inexpensive, easy comfort food, Frito pie retains a beloved place in American snack culture. It endures as the perfect encapsulation of 1960s ingenuity – making tasty use of mass-produced ingredients like corn chips. Frito pie’s origins may be murky, but its appeal is timeless.
While the exact origin is debated, Frito pie appears to have been created sometime in the mid 20th century, either in Texas or New Mexico. What is clear is that it became especially popularized across New Mexico in the 1960s. As Fritos spread nationwide, so did the craze of topping them with chili and cheese to create a filling snack. Frito pie became firmly established in American food culture, with regional variations adding local flavors. Years later, its simple ingredient list and throwback appeal continue to make Frito pie a beloved dish across the U.S.